PITTSBURGH – Dick LeBeau will turn 70 on opening day and his gift to the Cleveland Browns that afternoon could be a migraine headache.
The Browns’ center might call it a 1-5-5. The Steelers call it their updated “quarter” defense.
“I love it,” said Brett Keisel.
The 285-pound defensive end will have his chance to be Troy Polamalu in the new set. So will the linebackers. They’ll walk around looking confused, talking to each other. They’ll look like 11 kids in the school yard. Eleven angry kids.
“There’s a method to our madness,” said LeBeau. “We hope it looks like that.”
The players appear confused until the snap, when there’s a well-planned jailbreak. Some drop. Some rush.
“They all know where they’re going,” LeBeau said. “It’s harder for the offense to read, harder for them to get their protections set, their formations set.”
The Baltimore Ravens did it to confuse the Steelers last season. It wasn’t numbers, but schematics and LeBeau liked what he saw, so, he copied.
“Call it whatever you want. If it helps us, we’ll do it,” LeBeau said.
But of course it’s not all Ravens.
“The thing that got us thinking about it a little bit was Brett was our emergency linebacker the last few years,” LeBeau said. “We practiced him there and he did well and he showed the ability to do coverage things. And you have the rare combination there of a strong, big, pass-rushing man who can also get off in space and really play pass defense, and that’s kind of a rare combination, so we thought: Why not utilize the talent with a guy like that? So that’s really how the whole thing got started.”
Keisel pushed for it, too. He’s a linebacker at heart, and in this third-down package he’ll get a chance to prove it.
“I think it’s really going to be an advantage for us,” Keisel said. “We’ve only installed five or six plays that we’re running right now, and I think once we get into training camp and once we get the regular season going you’ll probably see a lot of it … I hope.”
A few seasons ago, LeBeau introduced a “quarter” defense, a 4-1-6 look. Two linebackers are among the front four.
Last year, one of the linebackers -- usually Joey Porter – lifted his hand and roamed among the second level with Polamalu in an attempt to create more confusion on third down.
LeBeau this spring has added a dash of Ravens and now three of his front four walk around as linebackers to create a chaotic scene.
“The only person that they know that’s rushing, maybe, is the nose,” said Keisel. “He’s the only guy that’s going to be on the line. The rest of us are going to be in the back where the linebackers are, just walking around, talking, pretending like we’re doing something, and hopefully we’ll do the complete opposite and screw them up and we’ll get a free sack.
“It’s almost like you’re tricking them. You act like you’re going to do this and then you do that. And Troy is the master of that. That’s where I think all this wizardry comes from. From watching him, watching how he can get up to the line of scrimmage and then get 50 yards back at the snap of the ball. He’s that great of an athlete.”
“It’s real cool, the flexibility that a coach gives you,” said Polamalu. “Every day you’re kind of testing your limits, to a point where, me personally with Coach LeBeau, it was like, ‘Okay, fine they’re letting me do whatever I want to do,’ and I figured that out for myself. So I think Brett’s going to go through the same thing. But once you get in the game situation it’s a little different. You want to study their protections and know what would help them, what wouldn’t help them, or us.”
The genesis of the defense is the mid ’90s when LeBeau at times used sets with eight linebackers and three defensive backs. Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene and Chad Brown were his chess pieces. Polamalu has given him another dimension.
“It started off we were very flexible in how we ran things,” Polamalu said. “We had different packages with those rover-type of guys. But then Baltimore kind of took it to another level, where they started adding more bigger guys. So then we’re kind of taking it to another level.
“When you have a 3-4 type defense and ends like we have, you can use that athleticism. That’s the advantage, why Baltimore and a team like us would be able to do it, and not, maybe, a 4-3 team.”
Considering the direction LeBeau’s taking the defense, it appears Mike Tomlin’s 4-3 is years away. And it’s not as if LeBeau’s looking at one last hurrah this season before retiring, as The Sporting News reported.
“I don’t know where they got that,” LeBeau said in dismissing the idea. “Now, I may not be here tomorrow, but I’m planning on it. You never know.”
(To read the transcripts of the interviews used to write this story -- Dick LeBeau, Brett Keisel, Troy Polamalu, Sean Mahan, Chukky Okobi -- click here).