Updated: 1-30-09, 7:40 a.m.
Few people have seen Dick LeBeau like Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski has seen the Steelers defensive coordinator.
Bratkowski has torched him on four Carson Palmer touchdown passes and a slew of Chris Henry bombs. Bratkowski also has one of the four 100-yard rushing games against LeBeau in the five seasons he's been back in Pittsburgh with Rudi Johnson's 123 yards in 2004.
But LeBeau, the former Bengals head coach, has stoned Bratkowski in the last four meetings on a miserly 965 yards.
LeBeau hired Bratkowski in 2001. Bratkowski praises him in 2009.
"I don't ever remember him having better 3-4 personnel than what they've got on this team," Bratkowski said Thursday. "All the way around. Corners. Linemen. All the linebackers are really good. And that goes for the last 10-12 years. This is the best personnel."
Sunday's Super Bowl should be the coronation of LeBeau's 50-year NFL career. A second ring in three years with the league's No. 1 defense against two old Steelers hands on offense in Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt and offensive line coach Russ Grimm.
"That can help (the Cards)," said Bratkowski, who coached the Steelers receivers in 1999 and 2000 when LeBeau was the Bengals defensive coordinator and then head coach. "It will help them in how to structure his protections and how to structure different formations. But it won't help them guess what is going to be coming."
Bratkowski was once hailed as having the key to moving the ball on The Steel Curtain by spreading them out with three and four wide receivers. Jon Kitna beat Pittsburgh with 401 yards in 2001 and on a last-minute touchdown pass to tight end Matt Schobel in 2003 that was his third scoring pass of the day.
"But that was when Dick wasn't there," Bratkowski said. "And they've got better players."
Plus, LeBeau's first year back with Pittsburgh in 2004 was second-year safety Troy Polamalu's first of five Pro Bowl seasons. Polamalu's presence in and out of the box, Bratkowski believes, is the defense's trademark.
"They don't really play eight guys in the box that much," Bratkowski said. "But what they've got is a safety that diagnoses so fast that he can become that eighth man out of seven men in the box very quickly."
Bratkowski's talking points on trying to stop LeBeau's clever matchups on third down never vary. You have to run the ball and both tackles and your running back have to hold up on the pass rush. In order to keep LeBeau on his toes, the running game has to make second- and third-downs manageable, and keep Polamalu in the box.
Bratkowski said just because you can get a handle on LeBeau's packages doesn't mean you can anticipate his most lethal calls on passing downs.
"He has his favorites (packages) on certain downs and distances," Bratkowski said. "He changes his packages every couple of weeks. But you don't know what he's going to use it in combination with. Say he's got 15 pressures on third down. He might have them in three separate bags. And he takes one out and adds it in. And he takes his best stuff and matches it to his personnel."
MARV TAKE: Marvin Lewis' hometown Steelers are favored to win Sunday's Super Bowl, but he thinks the turnaround of a team like their opponent, the Cardinals, as well as the Dolphins, sends a powerful message.
"For me what it tells you, and I hope it shows our team and fans and everybody here, you've just got to make football plays," Lewis says. "It has nothing to do with history or this or that. Go make football plays. Your good players have to play good and your average players can't get you beat. And that's what it's all about."
That was part of Lewis' riff on Wednesday when he sat down with some beat writers and challenged his players. As for Sunday's game, he thinks Arizona has a shot because they beat the Steelers, 21-14, in 2007. But they have to stop Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger from making those big passes out of the pocket after the play breaks down. "Arizona has to take care of the ball," Lewis said. "They have to stop Pittsburgh from being able to make plays they make. Those chunk plays they always seem to come up with. Can Arizona hold on to the football and make positive plays? They beat them last year, so it's not like they don't feel confident about it." **
DRAFT MUSINGS:** Lewis said the Bengals could conceivably sign a player in free agency and then draft the same position because there are positions they need two players. He's probably talking about running back and the offensive line, where they are talking to the agents for Cedric Benson and Stacy Andrews.
Lewis also defended the club's drafting in the second round, where only left guard Andrew Whitworth and wide receiver Jerome Simpson are left from the '03-08 drafts.
Left guard Eric Steinbach and safety Madieu Williams left via free agency, cornerback Keiwan Ratliff was cut, and middle linebacker Odell Thurman (NFL substance abuse suspension) and running back Kenny Irons (knee) are out of the league.
"We've identified good players," Lewis said. "Really, really good football players.
"But you can't fault the system. You can't keep every player. The first guy we tried to sign of those was Eric Steinbach. The only guys you're talking about are Odell and Kenny Irons. Odell is Odell and Kenny unfortunately got hurt."
Lewis said even though problems with Thurman didn't become public until after his rookie year in 2005, he could see it coming just by the way of Thurman's lack of discipline on the field would make his game range wildly between brilliant and bad.
"Those are things we lived with Odell as a player, too," Lewis said. "It was feast or famine, and that's eventually the way he lived his life, unfortunately, and famine caught up to him."
While his team's needs come close to desperate on offense, Lewis said he won't look past a good player just because he plays defense. And he saw plenty at the Senior Bowl, where he said he enjoyed spending time with the USC linebackers.
But then, Lewis admitted he likes spending time with everyone at the Senior Bowl. One of the reasons he enjoys it is because he not only spends time with them on the field and in the meeting rooms, but he also sees them around their families.
The mother of LSU offensive lineman Herman Johnson on the South team tried to jinx Lewis throughout the week by rubbing him on the shoulder, but Lewis said he got Johnson last.
"I enjoy it," said Lewis of coaching the game, "because it gives me the chance to know 90 players I wouldn't know as well until a month from now."
Lewis has coached the game with an organization (the Ravens) that has more scouts than the Bengals, but he said it doesn't matter. If he's not in the playoffs, he'd rather be coaching in Mobile no matter what team he's with because it gives him the chance for the personal contact.
In the past few years, the Senior Bowl has banned coaches and scouts who aren't working with the teams from being on the field during practices and Lewis says watching from the stands isn't as good.
"You see a guy like (future Steelers linebacker Jason Gildon) and you say, 'I've got to have that guy on my team.' You watch tape (of the practices), but to see that up close it's a little different. (Steelers linebacker) James Farrior. You get a real feel for them as competitors and and how they carry themselves."
Lewis thinks back to the 1998 game and he remembers the two most competitive guys in the secondary as Brian Kelly and future Bengal Artrell Hawkins and they "played for a long time."
HEALTH ISSUES: Lewis said he and Bengals president Mike Brown are concerned with the number of injuries from this past season that put a club-record number of players on injured reserve and they plan to study how it happened. He thinks part of the problem lies with the synthetic fields.
"Because the footing is better; there is no give," Lewis said. "I think that has a lot to do with why we're seeing more injuries. The fields are so much better. That's what everyone wanted. You don't want to be on Astroturf because it's too hard and you can't have grass in certain places in November and December.
"The game is good and looks good on TV. It's clean and neat, but yet there's always some kind of tradeoff."
But Lewis also knows he lost three players (Robert Geathers, Frostee Rucker, David Jones) on the Steelers' wet, messy field that is mostly grass.
"There's no perfect solution. Football is a violent game and guys get injured," he said.
About halfway through the season Lewis changed up his practice schedule, but it wasn't about cutting back time on the field. Rather, it was structuring the day differently so the team practiced after lunch and getting some extra time without keeping them at the stadium longer.
"I think we became a better team," he said. "I think we did a better job in the classroom and on the field and we did a better job as teachers in the time allotted."