LeBeau's Latest Project

Friday August 7th, 2015
For as long as Jason McCourty can remember, he has known the fire zone defense. Growing up, he’d watch teams employ the five-man pressure scheme, and in his three years at Rutgers, the Scarlet Knights dabbled in variations of it. In McCourty’s first six seasons as a cornerback in Tennessee, he was one of six players dropping back in coverage as five men pressured the quarterback.

Consider;McCourty’first day of training camp the equivalent of a mic drop. As he sat in the defensive meeting room, a man stood in front of a projector. He pushed play on his clicker and coolly stated: “When I first created the fire zone….”

That man — at 77 a bit wrinkled, slightly sun-weathered, but barely frail in the body and certainly not the mind — is Dick LeBeau. The Hall of Famer is now a Titan.

“Everything I’ve been learning, he kind of created it,” McCourty says. “Just think about what it’s like for a player to learn under a guy like that. There’s not one guy in our defense not excited.”

Any hoopla surrounding the 2015 Titans stems from Marcus Mariota and Tennessee’s offense of the future. But perhaps just as important to a team mired in mediocrity is LeBeau, tasked with recreating steely defenses of the past. LeBeau’s unceremonious exit from Pittsburgh, where he directed defenses to three Super Bowl appearances, opened opportunities. He could retire, his impact on football already cemented in Canton. With 56 years in the NFL, as a player and coach, why not? LeBeau wanted to exit on his own terms. He could have joined Bruce Arians and a better-constructed unit in Arizona, but LeBeau chose somewhere that needed his construction.

In Tennessee, LeBeau’s former pupil, Ray Horton, is still listed as defensive coordinator,  but this is LeBeau’s defense now. He will call plays on game day, and oversee a unit that ranked 27th in the NFL last year.

It felt surreal to watch LeBeau in Nashville on Wednesday. While his coaching peers wore athletic shorts and tees, LeBeau looked ready to hit the tees: white shoes, and tall white socks, his white polo uncreased and perfectly tucked into his navy shorts.

He stood on the sideline, arms crossed, blank stare purveying drills. It’s the same unflappable expression, the same stance, the same paternal aura that manned Pittsburgh’s sidelines for as long as any of his current players have been alive. “I was scared before I first met him,” says defensive end Jurrell Casey, the crown jewel of Tennessee’s D. “I thought that he was going to be stuck up, tight, real strict.”

And then in that first meeting, LeBeau smiled. “Let me tell you guys a story,” the coach said.

“He tells stories 24/7,” Casey says.

“All day, stories about this guy, stories about that guy,” defensive end DaQuon Jones says.

“The stories are so good,” McCourty says. “We just sit back and listen.”

So many of the tales are about Dick “Night Train” Lane — the time Night Train got beat, fell down and started to chase his guy anyway, the time LeBeau decided to start calling “Night Train” Dickie Bird.

In meetings, LeBeau doesn’t use an iPad. He rarely uses a computer, rarely consults notes. It’s all in his head. Why he’s so revered is best surmised by McCourty: “He’s not screaming about what you need to do, he’s more interested in explaining why you should do it.”

His new pupils shut up and listen. Linebacker Brian Orakpo was the defense’s big get in free agency; a large reason Orakpo chose Tennessee? He was playing in LeBeau’s schemes at Washington, if he wanted to be the best, he might as well go play for the guy who invented them.

 Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com

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