Sunday is Dick LeBeau's 75th birthday. After you pick your jaw up off the floor -- the Steelers' Hall of Fame defensive coordinator could pass for 57, easy -- consider the gift the football gods have given him: On the day he turns three-quarters of a century, he gets to playcall Pittsburgh's opener. Against Peyton Manning. "That's not a real appetizing part of this birthday, trying to defend one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time," LeBeau said from his Steelers office Wednesday night. "But honestly, playing the game Sunday soothes the fact that it's my 75th a little bit."
LeBeau occupies a unique and honored position in the game. He made the Hall of Fame off his career as a cornerback; he had 62 interceptions in a 13-year career with the Detroit Lions. Sometimes, when he sees a young Steeler exulting after an interception, he sidles up to him and reminds him he had 62 of them. "It's called 'establishing credibility,' " LeBeau said. He moved on to a coaching career, and is considered the father of the Zone Blitz, the offense-confounding blitz package that has defensive linemen dropping into coverage and corners and linebackers rushing the passer.
Never has he faced a player more confounding than Manning. In seven meetings against Manning (three as a coach with Cincinnati, one with Buffalo and three with Pittsburgh), LeBeau's teams are 1-6. Manning hasn't pulverized LeBeau's defenses, averaging 26 points per game, but he's won. And from what LeBeau's seen on tape from this summer's preseason efforts, Manning's going to do a lot more winning this year. "I don't see much difference in him, quite honestly," LeBeau said. "I had a chance to play Bobby Layne, Y.A. Tittle and Norm Van Brocklin late in their careers, and the reason they stayed so dangerous as players is because they knew how to play the position. I believe the quarterback position is more how you manage the game anyway. And I saw that with Peyton in the preseason: He did everything he needed to do to show he still can play the position at a high level."
LeBeau's right. Against the Niners two weeks ago, Manning made all the throws you need to make to win. LeBeau knows he'll need to mix up the coverages and the rushes -- the way he's done in their last two meetings, holding Manning to 42 points in eight quarters.
Now for how LeBeau stays young. He runs before practices, on the field. He golfs a lot in the offseason. He does crossword puzzles and mental games. He hangs around the youngest players on his unit, to learn the latest in youth-think."It's a young man's game, but in my heart, I still think I qualify," he said. "I'm surrounded by young people, which helps. I honestly don't think about it much, but I have made a promise to myself: If I ever feel myself slipping, I'll get out. I haven't felt it yet. ''No one's pushing him out the door. At 74, LeBeau orchestrated the league's No. 1 defense, both in yards and points allowed. Keep doing those crosswords, coach.
Enjoyed interviewing Aaron Rodgers, Larry Fitzgerald and Mike Klis of the Denver Post for the first podcast of 2012. As usual, it's available on SI.com and on iTunes.
Rodgers on his offseason: "When you lose, like we did, the letdown is huge, not only for the team but also for the fans. And it's tough to be here and see the disappointed faces when I'm out at the Piggly Wiggly shopping or if I'm driving on Oneida Street or grabbing some lunch somewhere ... So it was nice to be able to get back to California, clear my head a little bit and start to feel better both mentally and physically."
Rodgers on how he fits in California: "There's a lot of beach bums that look like I do."
Fitzgerald on the future of football, and parents allowing their kids to play football: "This is a great game, it's a great game. Do people get injured? Absolutely. People get injured in NASCAR, people get injured in basketball, people get injured in hockey. It's part of being a competitor and being a sports athlete. But I don't think it will deter the vast majority of people from coming out and letting their children play."
New York Jets right tackle Austin Howard (No. 77). The right tackle spot has been a bit of an attention-magnet for the Jets. Wayne Hunter became the most famous failed right tackle in franchise history, ceding the job to Howard, an undrafted free-agent from Northern Iowa. Howard bounced from Philly to Baltimore to the Jets since entering the league in 2010, and Sunday he'll use his size (6-7, 333) to try to keep Mario Williams, in his Buffalo debut, out of the Jets' backfield. "Probably the only thing worse than that would be [facing] the [DeMarcus] Ware kid,'' said Rex Ryan. Look for some tight end and fullback help on Williams, but as Ryan says, there will be plays when Howard is one-on-one with Williams, and how he does will go a long way in determining who wins this game.
1. The Replacements. We'll give the officials a B-minus for the Wednesday night opener, but graded on a curve -- and seeing that the referee, Jim Core, was doing NAIA games in Oregon and Montana last fall -- that's a darned good grade. Core, by the way, double-dips this weekend: He has Chargers-Raiders in the Black Hole Monday night.
2. HWPD? How will Peyton do? Better than you think, I believe, against the malleable Pittsburgh front. Even better, probably, if James Harrison (who may miss the game after August arthroscopic knee surgery) doesn't play.
3. WWTD? What will Tebow do? The Jets have kept Tim Tebow under wraps all summer, but look for some Timmycat snaps subbing for Mark Sanchez on offense, and it's only a matter of time before we see Tebow do something odd on special teams.
4. The Modell legacy. Look for a heavy dose of coverage on the life and times of the late Browns and Ravens owner on the TV shows. Deservedly so.
5. Rookie QB America. In the early games Sunday, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III and Brandon Weeden and Ryan Tannehill debut simultaneously, for the Colts, Redskins, Browns and Dolphins, respectively. (How do you watch four games at once, Trent Dilfer?) Then Russell Wilson gets the late-game rookie stage alone, at Arizona. Rookie most likely to win his opener: Wilson, the lowest of the five picks.
6. Cam II. What can Cam Newton do for an encore? We'll find out in the stifling humidity of Tampa in a late start Sunday. I keep hearing offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinki has some interesting stuff up his sleeve for Year 2 of the Newton era in Charlotte, and maybe we'll see some of that on Sunday.
7. Kevin Ogletree. If you didn't take him in your fantasy league draft before his two-touchdown, 114-yard game against the Giants, good luck getting him now.
8. The No Huddle. Baltimore might use it all the time. Denver's going to use it a lot, because that's what Peyton Manning does. When I asked Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers if the Pack would expand the use of it, he smiled slyly and said, "We just might.'' Anything, it seems, to keep defenses from dictating to offenses.
9. New stuff on TV. NFL Network expands to a 49-hour pregame show on Sunday. Honest! (Well, NFLNet would if it could.) The house channel is adding a two-hour show, from 7-9 a.m., hosted by Melissa Stark live from NFL Films in New Jersey, with new network analyst LaDainian Tomlinson joining Sterling Sharpe and Michael Lombardi.
ESPN adds Brian Dawkins, Matt Light and Jason Taylor to the studio, while former NFL ref Gerry Austin, borrowing a page from Mike Pereira, will be in the Monday night booth to add rules interpretations if needed during games. And the best of the old stuff -- the NFL Matchup show -- returns to ESPN2, Sundays from 8:30-9 a.m.
10. Kyle Williams returning punts. That's how it appears for the 49ers, based on the fact that Ted Ginn Jr. is has a sore ankle, and Williams is next in line for the punt-return job, at Green Bay Sunday. You'll recall what happened the last time Williams returned punts -- he muffed a pair in the NFC title game against the Giants, the second one in overtime that led to the Giants' game-winning points. Coach Jim Harbaugh swore to me in training camp that the Niners were 100 percent behind Williams, and, assuming he's the man returning Sunday, Harbaugh's 100 percent right. And 100 percent loyal.