By Jim Wexell
TAMPA, Fla. — Rod Woodson’s election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame capped off a news-making week for the former Steelers cornerback, who earlier had this to say about Super Bowl XLIII:
“This is the worst matchup for the Steelers,” Woodson said. “The way you beat a 3-4 defense is to spread them out and hit them in the seams. Arizona can do that.”
And the Cardinals have the talent: Kurt Warner is an accurate, quick-throwing quarterback who’s already won a Super Bowl; Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston are only the fifth trio in NFL history with 1,000 receiving yards apiece; and the great Edgerrin James, in a late-career revival, averaged 4.6 yards per carry over the last five games.
Of course, the Steelers have the No. 1 defense in the league, and “the man behind the mask,” as linebacker LaMarr Woodley put it.
That man is Dick LeBeau, and it’s his job to stop an offense that’s scored 30, 33 and 32 points in three playoff games.
But LeBeau has done it before.
n In Super Bowl XXIII, LeBeau’s Cincinnati Bengals faced the San Francisco 49ers, who’d averaged 31 points in the 1988 NFC playoffs. LeBeau’s defense held Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, John Taylor and Roger Craig to 13 points until a 92-yard drive resulted in a touchdown with 34 seconds left to beat the Bengals.
“We had them 2nd-down-and-18 on that last drive,” said LeBeau. “We had worked on a defense two weeks there that really took Rice out of the play, and I thought this is the play to make them go somewhere else. So I called that defense and we had so many guys around Rice they knocked themselves off and Jerry caught the ball and ran about 45 yards. That’s how they got down in there, and we almost held them there.
“But as a coach, you feel like you had them in the right defense, but for whatever reason the cards just didn’t fall.”
n LeBeau had his Steelers in plenty of right defenses in Super Bowl XXX. The Dallas Cowboys of Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin had averaged 34 points per playoff game, and the Steelers would’ve kept them well below that average had Neil O’Donnell not served up two touchdowns via awful interceptions in the Cowboys’ 27-17 win. LeBeau’s defense held Aikman to 209 yards passing, Smith to 49 yards rushing, and Irvin to 76 yards receiving.
n LeBeau finally got his ring in Super Bowl XL. His Steelers held the NFL’s No. 1 scoring team, the Seattle Seahawks, to only 10 points. His most effective call that game was a defense he’d installed the previous night.
“It was just a way for us to kind of roll up on where they like to throw it, the strong side,” said cornerback Deshea Townsend. “The backside corner was just playing zero man, but every time we ran it, they had a tough time. But he just saw something and he felt it.
“Most of the times,” Townsend added, “when you put a new defense in, you run it one or two times, but we probably ran that defense 10, 15 times in the game. That’s a lot for one call.”
The players trust whatever LeBeau will call tonight against the Cardinals, who’ll need plenty of offense to match the Steelers on the scoreboard.
While the Cardinals’ defense has young, emerging stars in DT Darnell Dockett, CB Antrell Rolle and SS Adrian Wilson, it did allow an average of 24 points, 340 yards and 4.3 yards per carry in its last five games. For a team to reach the Super Bowl with those kind of numbers down the stretch, it must have one hot offense.
So, what does LeBeau have in store?
“We have some stuff we put in, some things that allow us to give them some different looks,” Townsend said. “I think that’s going to be the key – not giving Kurt Warner the same look every time you come out, not letting him get a good bead on what he feels the defense is doing. Coach LeBeau has put enough in the package this week to shake it up.”
But how will LeBeau defend three 1,000-yard receivers and a Hall of Fame running back?
“Well,” LeBeau started his answer, “a wise man once said, ‘He who defends everything, defends nothing.’ That was Fredrick the Great, the unifier of the Prussian states. I think he knew what he was talking about. He had a pretty good competitive record.”
So does LeBeau.