Though it was clear at the end of his tenure with the Pittsburgh Steelers that it was time for the parties to go their separate ways, there is no doubt that former defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau will remain one of the best-loved coaches in team history.
Presiding over the defense from 2004 through the 2014 season, his units helped lead the Steelers to three Super Bowl appearances, and two championships, often in dominating fashion, as it was far from uncommon for them to finish first in one or more of the major defensive categories, such a points or yards allowed.
And he knows that Hall of Fame safety Troy Polamalu, whom he is going to have the honor of inducting next month, was exactly what his unit needed. He was a starter on every one of LeBeau’s defenses, and there was just a certain magic in it.
“I think in the situation with Troy, his particular talent and ability matched up perfectly with the way I like to attack on defense”, he said of the Steelers’ 2003 first-round draft pick, the very rare player for whom they actually traded up. “I think it was just a perfect union”.
While it took him a year to get his feet underneath him and crack the starting lineup, Polamalu obviously went on to have a legendary career. Even his own stats cannot properly do it justice. He recorded 783 career tackles in 158 games with 56 for loss, 12 sacks, 32 interceptions, 107 passes defensed, 14 forced fumbles, seven recoveries, and five total defensive touchdowns. He had another three interceptions, including a pick-six, in the postseason.
Though he won the Defensive Player of the Year Award in 2010, it was arguably in 2008, when they last won the Super Bowl, in which he had his best season. He picked off seven passes that year with 17 passes defensed, and was the X-factor for one of the great defenses of this century, which led one of the worst championship offenses of this era to a title.
“I think there are many situations like that on that defense where we were so close to each other”, LeBeau said. “They were extremely talented and were so successful. That 2008 defense, I don’t know if anybody will put numbers up like that ever again. It was such an honor and a blessing to be a part of that”.
The defense ranked first in points and yards allowed that season, first in passing yards and second in rushing yards allowed. It finished with 29 takeaways, with the best third-down and red-zone defenses in the league. And it had 51 sacks, including a team-record 16 from James Harrison.
The Steelers have had some very good defenses in recent years, and have some truly talented players on that roster, such as T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward, Minkah Fitzpatrick, and Stephon Tuitt. But that 2008 team was just something else. And that something, in that era, was Troy, in LeBeau’s system.