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
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.