12-28-01, 8:40 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Tim Lewis, the Steelers defensive coordinator, has led Pittsburgh to the top of the NFL charts. But on this day, he had to wait on Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau.
It was at a league meeting in Chicago this past May and most of the NFL coaches were gathered in an airport hotel meeting room. The man leading the job seminar told them they were going to take a few minutes so each man could pick out a coach or coaches in the room who had helped their careers.
"I had to wait in line for Dick. There were some people around him, that's for sure," Lewis remembered from Pittsburgh Thursday. "When I first got this job, a day didn't go by, or a phone call wasn't made, where I didn't think, 'What would Dick do?'"
It turns out that Lewis is doing exactly what LeBeau did in Pittsburgh six years ago. In his second year as coordinator, Lewis is pushing the buttons of a 3-4 zone defense terrorizing the NFL with a stifling brew of fast linebackers, sticky cover cornerbacks, and an inscrutable array of zone blitzes.
And, just like 1995, the defense has made the Steelers the AFC favorite for the Super Bowl with a 12-2 record. They made it then. A win over the Bengals Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium helps them get back with a bye and home-field advantage in the playoffs.
Lewis would also stand in line for his current head coach in Pittsburgh, Bill Cowher, and his college coach at the University of Pittsburgh, Jackie Sherrill. But when Green Bay made him the first cornerback taken in the 1983 draft, Lewis remembers a Packers secondary coach (and legendary Bengal) named Ken Riley using the phrase, "As Dick LeBeau used to teach me. . ."
Then Riley was replaced by Dick Jauron, another former Bengal known to invoke the name of LeBeau. So when Lewis got his first NFL job as the Steelers secondary coach before that 1995 season, wasn't it right that LeBeau should be his coordinator?
"My father really wasn't a part of my life growing up," said Lewis of those days in Quakertown, Pa. "But Coach LeBeau is the kind of man I would gladly have as a father. When I finally worked with him, he's what they told me he was. Extremely intelligent. Dedicated. Fun loving. A good friend and great father."
LeBeau has been entangled on his family football tree all season.
In September, the Bengals cuffed up the Ravens' history-making defense that is coordinated by another LeBeau protégé in Marvin Lewis. Jauron brought his Bears into PBS back in October and blanked his mentor on Chicago's way to the playoffs. Just last Sunday, Marvin Lewis got revenge in another shutout, the first of the season for Baltimore's No. 6 defense.
Now comes Sunday and naturally the home schedule ends with a duel between LeBeau disciples. Here comes Tim Lewis with the NFL's No. 1 defense and here waiting is Mark Duffner, the first-year Bengals defensive coordinator who has overseen Cincinnati's first foray into the top ten in more than ten years.
"I hope my guys do well," LeBeau said in vintage understatement. "Except when they play us."
Lewis is a LeBeau guy. He was on the brink of a Pro Bowl career with 16 career interceptions when a neck injury in his 52nd game ended it all. But he's a big man, big for a corner, and there is a presence about him. Saints head coach Jim Haslett, his predecessor in Pittsburgh, saw it.
"Tim has the players' attention," said Haslett this week from his New Orleans office, where he's fighting for playoffs. "I think Dick's great and he has the same way with guys. He's been there and done that. Tim didn't play long, but he was a good player and a first-rounder.
"I had a player come up to me this week," said Haslett of his preparation for the Redskins. "And the guy said, 'Did you play with Bruce Smith?' I
told him, 'Yeah,' and he asked, 'What's it like going against him as a coach?' and I hadn't even thought about it, but that means something to players."
Lewis hopes he has taken the straight shooting from LeBeau, which is something else players like.
"With Dick, there's never any doubt," Lewis said. "He tells you exactly what he's thinking."
But LeBeau, Lewis, Haslett and all the rest will tell you it's all about players.
And just like LeBeau had speedy, sacking linebackers in Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene, Lewis has Jason Gildon and Joey Porter. Cornerback Chad Scott may not be Rod Woodson, but he's one of the more solid guys in the league. And remember, LeBeau didn't have Woodson for the Super Bowl run because of a ripped-up knee. LeBeau had a Pro Bowl nose tackle in Joel Steed and Lewis has one emerging in first-rounder Casey Hampton.
"People were asking me before the season," Lewis said, 'Why are you guys sticking with the 3-4 defense? It's a dinosaur.' Not when you have good players."
Bengals reserve John Jackson was the Steelers starting left tackle in 1995 and to him there are no secrets why Cowher continues to have sterling success with a defense hardly anybody uses. That's one of the main reasons. Cowher has been his jaw-jutting constant self with the scheme.
"They've made a commitment to it. They stuck with it and didn't change," Jackson said. "They play that defense with so much confidence. That's what makes it work. They want to decide it at the end of the game. That, and they keep you guessing where those (blitzers) are coming from. The key is where and when the guys are coming from the inside. Shortest point. They're dropping and stunting and you got to figure who is doing what when."
One of the things Lewis picked up from LeBeau is when to hit offenses with the blitz when they are the most vulnerable. And, just as importantly, when not to.
"Tim is very good at making adjustments during a game," Haslett said. "He's got a good feel for it. I wouldn't say he's all that organized, but in a game, he can make moves."
Lewis says the key to the consistency is not being consistent with the Xs and Os. They have 49 sacks, one behind NFL-leading Green Bay, but it's not always all-out.
"It's not attack every week," Lewis said. "One week it might be attack because that's what the other team dictates. But another week it might be a mix of attack and zone. The week after that, it might be all zone. Dick is a strategist. He's a guy who does whatever it takes to win. If it's not going to beat the other team, he's not going to stick with it."
The 3-4 defense isn't supposed to stop the run. LeBeau moved the Bengals out of a 3-4 two years ago and into an over-and-under four-man line when they weren't stout enough to stop the run. But when you have the personnel. . .The Steelers are No. 1 against the run.
"We've got guys comfortable with what they're doing," Lewis said.
Like LeBeau, he's got a keen sense of history. Of his own and others.
Lewis' mother pressed all kinds of clothes, from shirts to dresses, to put food on the table while he grew up in a big extended family that included three other NFL players. His brother, Will, is now an executive with the Seahawks, and his cousins are the Riddick brothers.
It was a time when Lewis, 40, grew up watching guys like Gale Sayers and Lem Barney. And then he found himself working for a guy who tackled Sayers and played with Barney.
"It was great working for him because he's got the stories," Lewis said. "That was a thrill for me to listen about the guys that I watched as a kid. And he always had the time to talk you. "
When reminded he is now making some of that same history LeBeau made before him, Lewis started sounding like another understated, cautious defensive mind that chooses his words carefully.
"Talk to me after Sunday," Lewis said with a laugh. "We've got to play at 1 p.m."