Dick LeBeau’s Legacy with Steelers: 15 Years of Unparalleled Excellence

The when news of Dick LeBeau’s “resignation” as Steelers defensive coordinator broke in 2015, Steelers Nation reacted with a flurry of emotions ranging from sadness, to outrage, and even to vindication on the part of fans anxious for a change. But one thing remains clear:

  • Dick LeBeau’s legacy with the Steelers will long remain unmatched

That’s not a small statement for an organization that has won 6 Super Bowls and seen at least 10 former assistants rise to the rank of head coach since Bill Cowher’s arrival in 1992.

Here we remember and honor Dick LeBeau’s legacy with the Steelers. Scroll down or click on the links below to learn more or relive the memories:

Dick Lebeau, Pittsburgh Steelers, Dick LeBeau Legacy, James Harrison

Dick LeBeau addresses the Steelers defense, early in the Tomlin era; Photo Credit: Sports Illustrated

LeBeau, with Capers and Lewis, Joins Cowher’s First Staff

Dick LeBeau arrived in Pittsburgh as part of Bill Cowher’s inaugural staff. The media speculated over how a group of assistants who’d never worked together would gel as a team.

  • Such speculation was idle, at least on the defensive side

Cowher named Dom Capers as his defensive coordinator, Marv Lewis as his linebackers coach, Steel Curtain veteran Steve Furness as his defensive line coach while he charged Dick LeBeau  with running his secondary. Yours truly had held out hope that Cowher would retain Dave Brazil, who’d led the Steelers to a number 1 overall ranking in 1990, and regarded LeBeau as suspect simply because he was an ex-Bengal.

  • Such ignorance of youth taught me to temper reactions moving into adulthood.

The 1992 Steelers improved from 22nd to 13th in yards allowed. The 1993 defense improved from 13th to 3rd in yards allowed. The 1994 defense improved from 3rd to 2nd in yards allowed.

“Special” would be only word used to describe 1994 defense, featuring Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene and Carnell Lake in their primes, with Chad Brown, Joel Steed and Levon Kirkland hitting their stride as starters.

  • The defense was so good that Dom Capers was a slam dunk as a candidate to become the Carolina Panther’s first head coach.

Cowher needed someone to take over the Blitzburgh defense that was dominating as no other had in Pittsburgh since the 1970’s. Really, there was only one man he could turn to Dick LeBeau. As Steelers Digest commented, “LeBeau Can’t Say No.”

Crisis Management Defines LeBeau’s First Stint as Steelers Defensive Coordinator

I happened to be living in Cincinnati when Dick LeBeau returned to the Bengals after the 1996 season, and my reaction was, “I am not sure we’re really losing all  that much.” The reaction was based on the fact that the Steelers defense had slipped under LeBeau back down to 3rd in 1995 and while it returned to its number 2 ranking in 1996, the defense lacked the air of dominance of just 2 years before.

  • Again, such ignorance of youth paves the way for the wisdom of maturity

Certainly the Steelers defenses of 1995 and 1996 did lack the air of invincibility of the 1994 version (although as Alfred Pupunu showed, the 1994 defense had its weaknesses), but there was a reason for that.  Such was the fate of Dick LeBeau that he would lose his best defensive player on opening day in consecutive seasons:

  • in 1995 Rod Woodson planted as he attempted to tackle Barry Sanders, and tore his ACL
  • in 1996 a collision between Woodson and Greg Lloyd caused a season-ending and career altering knee injury for Lloyd

Lloyd was far from the only injury fate forced LeBeau to deal with on opening day 1996 – the Steelers had kept linebackers, but injuries to Jason Gildon, Steven Conley, and Eric Ravotti left Steelers coaches openly talking of shifting to a 4-3 for week 2 – even though Pittsburgh had 10 linebackers on its roster.

  • In both seasons LeBeau did what good coordinators do – he compensated

The big move in 1995 came with the decision to shift Carnell Lake from strong safety to corner during the middle of the season.

Outside of a few snaps during the 1991 preseason, Lake had never played corner. Myron Bell could capably take over his slot at safety, but Lake had a huge adjustment to make in transitioning from safety to corner.

  • Under LeBeau’s guidance Lake’s successful transition helped the Steelers reach Super Bowl XXX

In 1996 LeBeau compensated by moving Chad Brown to the outside, where he promptly registered 13 sacks. He also rotated in younger players such as Earl Holmes and Donta Jones as 20 separate players on the Steelers defense recorded a sack that season.

At the season’s end Dick LeBeau, whose family had remained in Cincinnati, got offered the defensive coordinator/assistant head coach job in Cincinnati. He took it and for years speculation followed that his departure signaled that Bill Cowher was an impossible task master to work for.

Cowher brought in Jim Haslett and then Tim Lewis to coach the Steelers defense, although both men were tasked with running the existing system rather than installing their own. The Steelers fielded some good defenses, although New England and Cincinnati would demonstrate the weakness of the Steelers vs. the spread offense in 2002.

  • The Steelers finished 6-10 in 2003 and while the defense ranked 9th, it didn’t scare anyone

Bill Cowher fired Tim Lewis and Dick LeBeau had just been let go in Buffalo…

2004 LeBeau’s Return Signals Steel Curtain’s Rise

Dick LeBeau’s return to Pittsburgh in 2004 was much ballyhooed. As well it should have been. Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, Deshea Townsend and Joey Porter were in their primes.  Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor were hitting their stride as starters. Willie Williams was back.

  • LeBeau delivered immediate results

The Steelers 2004 defense ranked number 1 overall, and it helped carry the team on an unprecedented 15 game winning streak that didn’t end until the Steelers faced off against the Patriots in the AFC Championship game.

  • But 2004 was just the warm up

The Steelers 2005 defense dropped to 4th in yards allowed and 3rd in points allowed. But this was clearly a case where statistics don’t tell the true story.

The Steelers 2005 defense frustrated Peyton Manning in the AFC Divisional Playoffs, and exposed Jake Plummer as the pretender he was vs. Denver in the AFC Championship game.

  • And in Super Bowl XL, it was Dick LeBeau’s defense that delivered the game-changing interception

Along with the rest of the Steelers, LeBeau’s defense suffered a Super Bowl hangover in 2006. But as Cowher made his exit, LeBeau made it clear he wanted to stay.

Tomlin Retains LeBeau in 2008

The Rooneys agreed. As Mike Tomlin put it in his opening press conference, all of the Cowher’s assistants came recommended, Dick LeBeau came highly recommended. LeBeau remained.

  • For all parties involved, retaining LeBeau represented the right decision

The Steelers 2007 defense finished number one overall, even as it lost Ryan Clark and Aaron Smith during the season. Like 2004, 2007 was just the warm up act.

During 2008 the Steelers defense had as fine a season as any defensive until since the 1976 Steelers. This was a defense loaded with playmakers, featuring James Harrison, Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, James Farrior, Ryan Clark, and Casey Hampton in their primes, with LaMarr Woodley establishing himself as a starter.

  • Fans will rightly remember the 2008 season for its seemingly endless stream of Roethlisberger led comebacks.

And so it should. But what many forget, is that LeBeau’s defense either set up those comebacks,  cemented them after the Steelers had regained the lead or provided the go ahead points.

As it did in 2006, LeBeau’s defense along with the rest of the Steelers suffered a Super Bowl Hangover in 2009. But 2010 was a different story.


Playing without Ben Roethlisberger for the season’s first 4 games, the Steelers defense played a critical role in the team’s 3-1 start, which saw Pittsburgh play 4th string quarterback Charlie Batch. The Steelers 19-10 victory over Tennessee might have been the finest single game performance for a Steelers defense ever.

  • For the record, the Steelers 2010 defense finished 1st in points allowed and second in yards allowed

It is true that Aaron Rodgers did exploit weaknesses of the Steelers defense in Super Bowl XLV, but it was LeBeau’s defense which powered the Steelers comeback vs. the Ravens and held off a Jet’s rally in the AFC Championship.

The Dick LeBeau Coaching Tree

There’s one part of LeBeau’s legacy that is missed all too often. And that is that he has spawned his own coaching tree. You don’t normally associate coaching trees with assistant coaches, but the Dick LeBeau coaching tree is real.

Tim Krumrie, Ray Horton, Kevin Greene, Darren Perry, Rod Woodson, Carnell Lake, Greg Lloyd, Joey Porter and Jerry Olsavsky are all former LeBeau players who have gone on to spend time as NFL assistants.

  • Some have coached longer than others. Some have had more success than others

Perhaps it was because of his cerebral approach to the game, perhaps it was of the loyalty he inspired, but no other NFL assistant has seen so many of his players move into the assistant coaching ranks.

Lion in Winter: LeBeau 2011-2014

You can dress the numbers up however you like – yours truly pleads guilty as charged here – but the Steelers defense has been in decline since 2010. In 2011 the slip off first became evident in the absence of sacks and takeaways.

Nonetheless, LeBeau authored what was arguably his greatest game plan that saw the Steelers triumph over the Patriots.

  • Unfortunately, it’s been downhill since then.

The Steelers defense finished first in total yards in 2011 and did it again in 2012 but the takeaway dearth got worse. In 2013 the Steelers defense slipped to 13th in total yards and 29th in interceptions. In 2014, its ranking slipped to 18th, although takeaways did improve modestly.

The truth is that this decline has a lot more to do with the drop off in talent, than it does with LeBeau’s coaching ability. Steel Curtain Rising has already argued that the Steelers should have kept LeBeau and will not repeat the argument here.

  • Clearly Mike Tomlin and Art Rooney II see things differently

Fair enough. It is their team. The Steelers have a well earned-reputation for being a people-oriented organization, but they rarely let sentimentally temper their thinking when hard decisions must be made. (Just ask Franco Harris, Art Rooney Jr. or Rod Woodson.)

However unpleasant the decision to part ways with LeBeau might have been. Dick LeBeau leaves Pittsburgh as one of the Steelers’ greatest assistants ever, and that legacy remains intact.

And that is something all of Steelers Nation should be proud of.

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