Braintrust ponders T.O.

<b>PITTSBURGH - </b> Hey, Dick, you have a minute?<br><br> Dick?<br><br> Dick LeBeau is lost in thought. He has just confounded the New England Patriots, the team that could not be confounded, the team that in fact does the confounding, and he's still thinking.

There are other geniuses in the game beside Bill Belichick and the Steelers have one. He's the defensive coordinator and there he is. LeBeau is lost in thought amid the chaos of a jubilant locker room.

The Patriots had been held to 5 yards rushing. And their alternative without Corey Dillon, the spread offense that tortured the Steelers in 2002, was rendered toothless by a secondary consisting of a Deshea Townsend, journeyman substitute Willie Williams and five players who've been alive an average of 23.4 years apiece.

This is LeBeau's first season with the team, and it's not even half over. His secondary was supposed to be his biggest challenge, and if the Steelers could hang in the race until that secondary matured, the thinking went, the Steelers could make a strong stretch run.

But the Steelers are 6-1. The stretch run is now and the consistent play of the secondary is a big reason.

The Steelers are third in the NFL in defensive passer rating (69.8) and completion percentage (54.7). They are fourth in fewest yards per attempt (6.33) and ninth in average yards per game (209.9). The latter is the statistic most commonly used, but it's inflated a bit because the Steelers average halftime lead is 13-9.

Last Sunday, the Steelers limited Tom Brady of the Patriots to a passer rating of 72.9. He went in with a rating of 92.3.

The key was the Steelers' ability to shut down the Patriots' empty-backfield spread formation. Against six and even seven-DB packages, the Patriots' spread produced an incompletion over the head of rookie Ricardo Colclough in the end zone, a fumble that led to a Steelers touchdown, and an interception return for a touchdown by Townsend.

It all happened in the first quarter. The disastrous formation was scrapped before the start of the second quarter, a far cry from the 29-for-43, 294-yard, 3-touchdown, 0-interception day Brady had against the Steelers in 2002.

Then, the Steelers panicked. They had cornerbacks covering wide fullbacks; linebackers covering wide receivers in the slot. On Sunday, the Steelers were ready. And the more players, it seemed, the Patriots lined up wide, the more players LeBeau moved up to the line of scrimmage to blitz Brady. The Steelers are once again dictating the terms.

"I think it's just a better understanding," said Townsend. "We corrected a lot of things we did in the past. Watching old film of New England, we could really see what we were doing wrong. We talked about it and tried to correct it. Coach LeBeau brings a lot of knowledge to the game. He's really helped us out a lot."

Townsend first came to the Steelers in 1999, three years after LeBeau had left for Cincinnati. But Townsend had heard good things from players such as Earl Holmes, Lee Flowers and Takeo Spikes. Townsend hasn't been let down.

"When he first got here, he told us to add all our interceptions up," Townsend said before counting out loud. Chad Scott had 18 and Townsend had 8. The rest had zero. LeBeau, the guy with 62 career picks, promised to teach them.

"He told us we had about 30 more to go," Townsend said. "Coach LeBeau is such a good guy, it makes it easy to play for him."

Williams, added later, has 18 career interceptions and is filling in for Scott. Townsend, meanwhile, has become the team's cover corner. It's a tag that both flatters and scares him.

"That's what they labeled me coming out (of college)," he said. "It made me drop further in the draft, so you can take that either way you want to take it. They said I was a cover corner, that I wasn't a complete corner. So it made it sound bad. Now, I guess it sounds good."

Townsend had the touchdown and three defensed passes last Sunday. He has three interceptions this season, which matches a career high and is one off the NFL lead. As a team, the Steelers have eight interceptions, with seven coming from the secondary. Last season, the Steelers had 14, 11 from the secondary.

The secondary's biggest test comes Sunday when quarterback Donovan McNabb (102.9 passer rating), wide receiver Terrell Owens (42-697) and the undefeated Philadelphia Eagles visit Heinz Field.

Owens leads the NFL with 9 touchdown catches. Last year against the Steelers, Owens caught 8 passes for 155 yards and a 61-yard touchdown pass from Tim Rattay to lead the San Francisco 49ers to a 30-14 win. Owens was, and is, the centerpiece.

"We don't really match up here," said the cover corner, "but if he comes on my side most definitely I'll have to cover him.

"They move him around a lot. He's in the backfield, in the slot. They make it tough for you to double-team him. You can't do it when he's in the slot. It messes up how you can double-team him. But they move him around and get him the ball a lot of different ways. That's why he's such a great receiver.

"We're preparing well and hopefully we'll be up for the challenge."

They will, as long as the guy with all those interceptions, who's seemingly lost in space at times, keeps on thinking over there.

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