You know a Dick LeBeau defense when you see it.
For the past 10 years, it’s come in the form of a host of black and yellow jerseys. After returning to Pittsburgh in 2004, LeBeau helped the Steelers create perhaps the most threatening defensive presence in the entire NFL.
Under LeBeau’s leadership, Pittsburgh spent eight seasons in the top five in total defense. Five of those years, the Steelers led the league in that category.
But now LeBeau has shed the black and yellow in favor of the white and blue of the Tennessee Titans as the team’s new defensive leader and associate head coach.
And with the Titans itching to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2008, LeBeau’s arrival couldn’t have come at a better time.
Building the Legend
At 78 years old, LeBeau has seen his fair share of football. For the past 57 seasons, he has been actively involved in the NFL as either a player or coach.
After having a successful playing career at Ohio State under legendary head coach Woody Hayes, LeBeau would go on to become one of the most feared cornerbacks in NFL history. He spent his entire Hall of Fame playing career with the Detroit Lions and racked up 62 career interceptions, which currently stands as the seventh most in league history.
Of course, once LeBeau stepped off the field, it was only natural that the field general would transition into coaching.
He got his start in 1973 as the special teams coach for the Philadelphia Eagles, and then he made his way to Green Bay to become the defensive backs coach for the Packers. LeBeau would then settle in with the Cincinnati Bengals from 1980 to 1991, as he coached the defensive backs for several seasons before landing his first defensive coordinator role.
In 1992, LeBeau entered his first stint with the Steelers, once again returning to what he knew best in taking the reins of the secondary. He then led the entire defense from 1995 to 1996 before jumping back to Cincinnati for job of defensive coordinator and associate head coach.
LeBeau became an NFL head coach for the first time in 2000 with the Bengals. He wouldn’t find the same kind of success in that position and was later fired in 2002.
He spent a lone year in Buffalo in 2003 before rejoining the Steelers once again.
After winning two Super Bowl rings in Pittsburgh, LeBeau made the decision to leave and join a familiar friend.
While LeBeau was busy creating a defensive juggernaut in Pittsburgh, current Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt was occupied with the task of running the Steelers’ offense.
Although Whisenhunt left the Steelers after the 2006 season to become the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, the duo were able to bring home a Super Bowl trophy after the 2005 regular season campaign when Pittsburgh rolled through the playoffs and topped Seattle in the 2005 Super Bowl.
After seeing LeBeau’s capabilities firsthand during that memorable run, Whisenhunt was clearly thrilled with bringing in such an accomplished coach – and close friend – to the Titans organization.
“Personally, it’s great for me because Dick and I are so close,” Whisenhunt told Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in March 2015 during the annual AFC coaches breakfast. “We talked through the years about maybe having the chance to work together again.
“There’s a special quality about him,” Whisenhunt said. “It’s a little bit like going to Augusta – you have expectations of being there, and when you go there, it’s even better than what you thought. You have this expectation and, when you get around him, you’re like, ‘Wow, he’s even better than what I thought he was.’ That speaks a lot to his demeanor and ability as a coach.”
LeBeau didn’t garner that type of recognition overnight. He’s put in years and years of work at the top levels of the NFL in order to be seen that way by so many players and coaches around the league.
He’s managed to earn a level of respect that few men have ever seen in the world of sports. Because of that, adding LeBeau was a no-brainer for Whisenhunt and the Titans.
Strength in Numbers
You’ve heard the saying before. “Age is but a number.”
You don’t see many 78-year-olds pacing the NFL sidelines in deep thought on when to call the next zone blitz or what type of coverage is needed on a crucial third down play.
That may cause some to worry about LeBeau’s ability to withstand the day-to-day grind of the NFL schedule, but after 50-plus straight seasons of confronting the challenge head-on, he’s proved that he can more than handle the task.
For 805 White Lightning – a high school nickname LeBeau confirmed in a recent training camp interview with 104.5 The Zone’s The Midday 180 because “kickoff was at 8:00, and by 8:05 I was in your end zone” – revamping the Titans defense will provide another challenge in the long list of ones that he’s faced throughout his career.
Given the team’s 2-14 record during the 2014 season, it should come as no surprise that the Titans ranked 27th overall in total defense.
In case you hadn’t already noticed, LeBeau doesn’t do 27th ranked defenses.
With the Titans adding an elite player like linebacker Brian Orakpo to an already solid defensive roster, a return to the bottom of the defensive rankings isn’t likely. Not with LeBeau running the show.
Chances are, it won’t look like a thing of beauty from day one. Those expecting dominant Steeler-like performances in the first few weeks of the season could be extremely disappointed.
But LeBeau has proven time and time again that he knows the tasks necessary to help this defense get there eventually.
Luckily for the Titans and the city of Nashville, we’ll now get to see LeBeau’s brilliance shine through from our sideline.
We already know that bringing LeBeau to Nashville was a simple decision for Whisenhunt and the Titans.
But was the decision to come to Nashville just as easy for the defensive legend?
“It was without a doubt,” LeBeau told The Midday 180 crew. “I’m very happy here. I know most of the coaches and worked with the head coach.”
“It feels like home to me.”
That statement should be music to the ears of every Titans fan in Nashville.
Speaking of music, LeBeau knows a little bit about that as well. He taught himself how to play the guitar and can even play songs just by hearing them a few times.
“I usually can pick up where it’s going if I hear it a couple of times,” LeBeau said in The Midday 180 interview. “Sometimes it takes me quite a few lessons before I get it. I just like music, and I like to sit down and figure out where the musicians are going with what they’re doing.”
For Titans fans, it won’t be hard to figure out where LeBeau is trying to go with what he’s doing.
He’s here to help lead the franchise back to the playoffs, and in order to do that, his goal is to once again create a defense that wreaks havoc on every single play.
And when it happens, you’ll know it when you see it.