LeBeau seeks improvement; Cowher demands it

PITTSBURGH - This off-season question was put to each of the Steelers' defensive principals: Is your defense the one that ranked first in the NFL last year or the one that was scorched by New England last game?

Coach Bill Cowher: "I don't look at either. I look at each position."

Coordinator Dick LeBeau: "The statistics say we were the No. 1 defense in the league. Who am I to argue with the statistics?"

Inside LB and team MVP James Farrior: "It always comes down to the last game, what you did in your last game. That's how I feel and I think our defense feels the same way."

So it's about 1-1-1 with Cowher's abstention. But the Steelers showed during the first week of Organized Team Activities they're not resting on any laurels.

"LeBeau started blitzing the first day of minicamp, the first play I think," said an offensive assistant coach. "Usually you give the rookies a chance."

The Steelers haven't. LeBeau is picking up from last year, when LOLB Clark Haggans said "Coach LeBeau came in and he stuck it on us."

In LeBeau's first season back, the Steelers went from 9th in the league to 1st. But …

"We came up short of where we all want to go," LeBeau said. "That's how we're going into this year: We want to get better."

It's obvious the players are practicing with vigor. The loss of leaders Joey Porter and Kimo von Oelhoffen this week sparked the rest of the squad. And they were given a kick in the butt by Cowher.

"The Ravens say they'll run for 200 on you guys again!" Cowher shouted from the balcony overlooking the playing field.

The Steelers had broken off by position, and below Cowher were the defensive linemen. Cowher, as per his spring routine, lets his coaches coach. Sometimes he sticks his nose in; other times he's out of sight. On this day he was very much in sight.

"Jamal Lewis says he'd like to pack you guys up and take you with him every week!"

Casey Hampton looked up with a big smile. Hampton is an easy mark for Cowher. He's a player who's easily motivated, perhaps fun to coach.

"Casey, Casey Rabach says you're the worst nose tackle in the AFC!" Cowher yelled. "Casey, I can't tell if that trunk is in front of you or behind you!"

The smile drained from Hampton's face and he went back to work.

Cowher is known as a motivator, and this is why, and there are several motivated players on this defense. James Harrison was picked to replace Porter in the starting lineup this week. Harrison is a player who shines when patted on the back. He likes to know he's appreciated.

The same can be said of Larry Foote. A smallish, brainy inside linebacker, Foote replaced Kendrell Bell last season amidst much consternation within the organization. LeBeau believed in him, and Foote played his way into a five-year contract with a $3.25 million bonus. He also held off an indirect threat from a legend at the Steelers' Mac LB spot, Chad Brown.

The Steelers pursued Brown as a situational pass rusher. They say they offered him more money, and that Brown took New England's offer because of an open starting job. The Steelers couldn't, and didn't, make the same promise because of Foote.

"I think Larry did a great job for us last year, and he's a young player who's still on the upswing," LeBeau said.

"If a Chad Brown would've come here he would've had to earn his spot into the playing rotation. We think we've got a pretty solid group of men here. Part of our strength is our depth. Is that to say there isn't room for a player like Chad Brown? No, I'm not saying that. You never have too many good players."

The Steelers do have bodies, particularly in the secondary. Mike Logan and Chris Hope form a motivated pair of free safeties. Third-year corner Ike Taylor drew the starting assignment this week in place of Deshea Townsend, and Taylor also responded with a great week - and a quiet one - of work.

A cocky Taylor was scolded publicly by Cowher last training camp, but Taylor could become an interesting player in the competition of what's become a deep crop of cornerbacks.

"The competition will be good in training camp," said LeBeau. "But we feel good about what we have. We think we can get better and that's our goal."

Steel City Insider Top Stories