Short list of DC candidates

It's a complex defense, perhaps even convoluted, which might be an apt description for Steelers Coach Bill Cowher's explanation to fire defensive coordinator Tim Lewis earlier this week.

Here's what Cowher told reporters a day after firing Lewis:

"It was just more of a philosophical thing, and we talked and we had a lot longer talks."

The Post-Gazette explained that "Lewis' fears of getting fired turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy" during those talks, and Cowher said "philosophically speaking, it was the right thing to do."

We may never understand any of this, but there is change in the air, and for that reason there exists a hint of optimism. Following is the short list of candidates to become the Steelers' next defensive coordinator:

* Willy Robinson -- The 47-year-old has coached the Steelers' defensive backs the last four years. If you've watched the downhill slide of cornerback Chad Scott and the slow development of rookie safety Troy Polamalu, you're probably against this candidate, but Robinson played a more prominent role in game-planning and play-calling last season than any of the remaining assistants. He stepped into the wingman's role last season after the departure of former linebackers coach Mike Archer.

Prior to landing with the Steelers in 2000, Robinson spent five years coaching under Dennis Erickson, who just finished his first season back in the league with the San Francisco 49ers. Robinson was the defensive coordinator for Erickson at Oregon State in 1999 and was the Seattle Seahawks' secondary coach from 1995-98. Robinson's still being linked to Erickson, who might lose his defensive coordinator, Jim Mora Jr., very shortly. Robinson might not be wise to use that link as leverage, since Erickson has just come off a disappointing season after being considered a poor hire initially by many within the 49ers' organization.

* Ted Cottrell -- Did Cowher fire Lewis upon learning Cottrell, a 3-4 guru, was available? It's possible, so let's not lean too heavily on Cowher's convoluted explanation. Anyway, Cottrell, 56, was let go by Herm Edwards after coordinating the New York Jets the last three years. Edwards explained that he wanted a coach who'd bring more aggressiveness to the defense. The Jets ranked 17th in the league with 35 sacks (one more than the Steelers) but were sixth in sack percentage (of opponents' passing attempts).

The Jets played without pass-rushing specialist John Abraham most of the season, but their biggest problem was a soft run defense that ranked 28th in the league. The year-long suspension of defensive tackle Josh Evans forced rookie Dewayne Robertson into the lineup before he was ready, and Robertson played poorly. Cottrell was also handcuffed by an aging linebacking corps and average cornerbacks as the defense finished 21st overall. The Jets were eighth in fewest points allowed.

Cottrell, reportedly livid after being fired for the first time in his 30-year career, coached a 3-4 scheme much of his career, and coordinated the 1999 Buffalo Bills to the league's top defensive ranking. He came to the Jets with Edwards, a Cover-2 devotee, in what was considered a curious combination from the start. Edwards termed the firing "a three-year decision" after Cottrell led the Jets to rankings of 19th, 24th and now 21st in yardage allowed.

In spite of being miscast as the boss of Edwards' 4-3 scheme, Cottrell was a finalist to become the 49ers' head coach last season. Cottrell has already been offered the defensive coordinator position with the Minnesota Vikings.

* Greg Blache -- Cowher and the Vikings have asked the Chicago Bears for permission to interview their defensive coordinator. The firing of head coach Dick Jauron has obviously made Blache's position tenuous with the Bears, but he could survive the coaching purge since he's still under contract.

Blache, 55, has been the Bears' coordinator the last five years and the unit finished 14th overall in the league last season. The team had only 18 sacks but Blache is being credited for the quick development of rookie starters Charles Tillman (CB) and Lance Briggs (LB). The team's other cornerback, Jerry Azumah, was a running back in college but has made great strides under Blache, who also has helped turned second-year strong safety Bobby Gray into a solid starter. Another contender for the 49ers' opening prior to the 2003 season, Blache had his best season with the Bears in 2001 when the team allowed the fewest points in the league. Prior to his stint with the Bears, Blache coached the defensive line for the Indianapolis Colts from 1994-98. He held the same position with the Green Bay Packers from 1988-93.

* Dick LeBeau -- Cowher also asked for, and received, permission from the Bills to talk to LeBeau, the former Steelers coordinator. He was the Bills' assistant head coach last season, and with the firing of Gregg Williams LeBeau's status is also tenuous since GM Tom Donahoe - who's being criticized in Buffalo for being too controlling -- has stated he'll give his next head coach total control of the staff.

LeBeau's one-year contract has expired, but he's probably in no hurry to return to Pittsburgh. He turned down an offer to become a Steelers defensive assistant last January and accepted a similar offer from the Bills in March. Also, one of LeBeau's closest friends, Dick Jauron, is the top candidate for the Bills' head-coaching opening and LeBeau would likely be retained if Jauron is hired.

As a defensive coordinator with the Cincinnati Bengals in the late 1980s, LeBeau designed the zone blitz, which he and Steelers defensive coordinator Dom Capers developed more fully with the Steelers in the early 1990s under Cowher. LeBeau was promoted to defensive coordinator in 1995 and helped the Steelers reach the Super Bowl that season. He left following the 1996 season to become coach-in-waiting in Cincinnati. LeBeau became the Bengals' head coach in 2000 and lasted three seasons.

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