Q&A: Dick LeBeau

Dick LeBeau (LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports)

Dick LeBeau addressed the more interesting issues surrounding the Steelers' defense in this wide-ranging interview. Here's the transcript:

Dick LeBeau, Defensive Coordinator, Pittsburgh Steelers

Q: You expressed optimism at the draft that Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt would play a lot. What’s the update?

DL: I don’t want to overload their plate but I would say they’re ahead of schedule. They’ve been very much a pleasure for the whole coaching staff, mostly because of the type of people they are. They’re hard workers. They know they’ve got a lot to learn, and that’s not always the case. And they’re very open to coaching. I don’t know when but we’re expecting some pretty good things from those guys.

Q: Is starting plausible?

DL: I think Ryan’s going to start and I could see Tuitt playing an awful lot of snaps.

Q: What has Tuitt shown you?

DL: Just what we saw from his college career. He’s an exceptional athlete for his size, and he can run. Even though I knew he could run, when I see him in person I am surprised by his endurance and his speed and quickness. I mean, I don’t know if I’ve seen a guy that big move like that. Now, does that mean he’s going to be a great player? No it doesn’t. There are a lot of other things that come in there. He seems willing to try to acquire that knowledge and those skills, so we’ll see where he goes. Again, these young guys, I don’t want to overload the expectations, but at this stage in the training camp, they’re doing a good job.

Q: Rookies don’t often start. What is separating Ryan? Is it opportunity and ability merging?

DL: That’s true. All of the above. The spot’s there and he has exceptional athletic ability. I think he’s going to be able to make a lot of plays for us.

Q: Are you expecting to see Johnny Manziel in the opener?

DL: I am. I am. If he’s not, we’ll play the other guy. I’m going to take a good look at him. Let’s put it that way.

Q: Why do you think he’ll play?

DL: He impressed me with his college career. He makes plays, and he was playing against some real talented athletes in that conference on defense, too. What I could see they were getting up there around 45, 50 points a game, so your quarterback’s gotta be doing something right. And he can keep the play alive. I’m not a coach in Cleveland, and I don’t know what they’re going to do, I’m just telling you what I’m doing.

Q: What can you do to change the number of big plays you allowed last year?

DL: We can play a whole lot better and coach a whole lot better. You hit the nail right on the head. I mean, a minimum of five or six plays would’ve totally changed the look of our statistical picture. But every play counts and we did give up too many big plays. That’s always been one of our strengths. We intend to make it (one) again.

Q: Can young guys elevate the energy level, particularly as it pertains to takeaways?

DL: We have been short at that but I don’t think youth has anything to do with that. I’ll take youth any day if they go the right direction. I’m not against youth.

Q: The linebackers are really flowing to the ball. How’s Lawrence Timmons as a leader? And has the revamping of the LB corps met with your satisfaction?

DL: Yeah we’re going to be fast there. We’ve got four fast guys there and I think we’re coming along with depth. We’re still looking to develop that. Lawrence is an amazing guy. He played the open inside backer for us all along. We had some injury problems a couple years ago and he went to outside and did a great job for us outside. He played the inside in the third-down defense. And when we had a problem at the strong side, he went to the strong side. He’s a very versatile guy. He really looks at home, to me, on the strong side. I think those two guys are going to give us a lot of speed at a position that doesn’t necessarily feature speed. We’re going to be fast at the inside backer.

Q: Ever have anyone play all of those different linebacker positions?

DL: I have. I have had several different players but I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone play it better than Lawrence has played them.

Q: Surprised he hasn’t made a Pro Bowl?

DL: I’ve said for three years he’s been playing at a Pro Bowl level, for three years now. A couple of those years we led the daggone league in defense, and he should’ve gone. But, again, that’s just my opinion.

Q: Have you noticed whether Jarvis Jones is stronger?

DL: Yes, yes I have. And he can still get stronger. But he’s working on that. He came along with the on-the-job training last year. Part of the reason of our turnaround, particularly defensively, was some of those younger guys that really hadn’t started – Jason and he and there are others – but they all improved because of the way they worked and kept their focus. I think Jarvis Jones is going to be a good outside linebacker.

Q: Do you view last year as an anomaly for Ike Taylor?

DL: He was playing with some injuries last year. True professional players do that and they don’t use it for a crutch. You didn’t hear that from Mike (Tomlin), but I could see it. Again, from the middle of the season on, if you look at him it’s really close to playing like Ike can play. He looks good at training camp. I think the anomaly part is that he was injured. But we needed him in there. I’m not saying that. But it’s going to affect his play a little bit.

Q: Was there a common thread with the big plays you gave up last year?

DL: Yeah. We were young early in the season and didn’t go the right way. It left gaps. When you leave gaps in the National Football League, you’re out of here, baby.

Q: What are we going to see differently with Mike Mitchell back there as opposed to Ryan Clark back there?

DL: I don’t want to compare the two. They’re both great players. But Mike is the one we’ve got now and I think you’re going to see a really veteran football player, tremendous range, good ball skills, and a good tackler. He’s going to be part of our speed package. When I talk about having a fast defense, he’s one of the fast guys. Again, those two safeties we’ve got and those four linebackers we’ve got, at those positions we can run a race with anybody in the NFL. Problem is, it ain’t a race. It’s a football game.

Q: With the depth at those positions, are you ready for up-tempo offenses more than ever?

DL: Well we better be ready for ’em, because that’s what you’re going to see. Nobody huddles in football, not even in high school football. We’ve been working on it from Day One in the coaching sessions, so it’s not going to be something they’re not comfortable with. But we’ll have to prove that we can execute and handle it, because you’re going to get it. You’re going to get it week-in and week-out.

Q: Is the notion of an every-down linebacker like Lawrence starting to fade away?

DL: You’re always going to have to have one or two of those guys in there. Not every play’s a pass, even though it’s third-and-8. It’s good to have a lot of little guys that are really fast running around covering those speed guys, but you’ve got to have somebody with a little muscle, too. I think there will always be a place for a bigger backer, but he’ll have to be of the ilk of Lawrence, agile enough and fast enough to do some stuff in pass coverage.

Q: Are base defenses suddenly the exception anymore? Are nickel defenses the default setting?

DL: You can look at the number of snaps. The only thing I would disagree with your statement is ‘suddenly.’ I mean, I’ve been aware of this for five years. We coach that way. We built our team that way. I tell our guys the first day in, everybody in this room is going to have a hat and play a significant amount of snaps; first of all, because of personnel packages, and then you’re going to have some injuries. It isn’t anything new at all. Is it a little more dramatic? Sure, because they’re having success doing that.

Q: Is this a passing trend? Will it be going away any time soon?

DL: You watch football, don’t you? I don’t know that it’s a trend. I think the (passing) trend would have to be to go back to the old two-back and run it off tackle. I don’t think you’re going to see that. It’s here to stay.

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