AFC North: Dick LeBeau

PITTSBURGH -- Mike Mitchell made a solid first impression during his introductory news conference on Thursday, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are hoping the safety who is counted on to replace Ryan Clark makes an equally impressive impact on the field.

Mitchell, who represents one of the bigger investments the Steelers have made in free agency, moved seamlessly between confidence and humility while delivering several pointed messages.

Mitchell said his best football is in front of him and that if it doesn't work out in Pittsburgh it won’t be because of a lack of effort.

[+] EnlargeMike Mitchell
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsMike Mitchell believes his personality and physical style of play will mesh well with the Steelers.
“I work extremely hard,” Mitchell said to an audience that included Steelers president Art Rooney II as well as his parents. “I can say this with the utmost confidence: If you put me in a room with anyone, I think he’s going to die first when it comes to working out. I just have that work ethic and tenacity.”

Mitchell sounded a lot like Clark, and there are notable similarities.

Like Clark, Mitchell is of the belief that hard hits and intimidation are still the essence of football no matter how much NFL commissioner Roger Goodell tries to emphasize safety.

He also uses perceived slights to drive him, and in Mitchell's case they range from getting overlooked by the alpha college programs to the criticism he received during the four seasons he spent with the Raiders.

“I play with a very big chip on my shoulder, and just because you went to LSU and I went to Ohio (University) you’re no better than me, and I look forward to proving that every single Sunday,” Mitchell said.

It is probably just a coincidence that Mitchell invoked Clark’s alma mater when discussing his approach to football. The two could probably have a heck of debate about who was overlooked more, Mitchell coming out of high school outside of Cincinnati, or the undrafted Clark coming out of college.

All that really matters to the Steelers is that Mitchell, 26, can play like a younger Clark and complement Troy Polamalu in the secondary.

All signs point to him doing just that – and at a more than reasonable price considering only $5.25 million of the $25 million contract that Mitchell signed this week is guaranteed.

Mitchell put everything together after leaving Oakland for Carolina, and he thrived when he got a chance to start on a regular basis for the first time in his career.

Mitchell intercepted four passes and forced two fumbles in the one season he played for the Panthers, also recording 3 sacks and 74 tackles.

That stat line suggests a varied skill set that defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is sure to put to good use in 2014.

Mitchell chatted up LeBeau at the Steelers’ practice facility before the news conference that general manager Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin could not attend because they were at Oklahoma State’s pro day.

Mitchell could make LeBeau look a lot smarter this fall if his ball skills transfer from Carolina, and if he is indeed correct that he has yet to play his best football.

“Every year I feel like I’m getting smarter, taking care of my body better,” Mitchell said. “I look very much forward to helping (the Steelers) get back to being that dominant defense that they’ve been.”

Steelers fans apparently feel the same way.

Mitchell said he added close to 10,000 Twitter followers after tweeting on Tuesday night that he had signed with the Steelers.

The “warm feeling” he said he received from Steelers fans isn’t the only reason why Mitchell checks his Twitter account on a regular basis.

Mitchell, who was such an unknown that even ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. had to scramble for information to discuss after the Raiders made him a surprise second-round pick in 2009, actually embraces the dark side of social media.

The more blistering the criticism the better when it comes to Mitchell, who will apparently find an edge wherever he can and use it to his advantage.

“Those type of things are what motivates me and helps me get out of bed in the morning,” Mitchell said.

The 6-foot, 210-pounder also finds motivation while walking past the library where the Steelers' six Lombardi Trophies are displayed.

“This is definitely a life-changing experience,” Mitchell said. "I know what the franchise is about, and the way that they play football here I really think fits my personality, it’s very hard-nosed. I can't wait to get to work."
PITTSBURGH -- Ike Taylor is willing to move to safety to prolong his playing career. And the veteran cornerback stopped just short of saying he would take a pay cut to stay with the Steelers.

As for his future in Pittsburgh, Taylor put it best when he said in an interview with FOX Sports that, “I would love to retire as a Steeler but you just never know. Time will tell.”

[+] EnlargeIke Taylor
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports"You've got to understand as a business it will always be a young man's sport and I understand that," Ike Taylor said.
Like defensive end Brett Keisel did earlier this week at the Super Bowl, Taylor said he still believes he has some good years left in an NFL career that really gained traction in 2005 when the former fourth-round draft pick capped a superb season with an interception that helped the Steelers beat the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL.

But Taylor is also facing a similar reality as Keisel if he wants to continue his career in Pittsburgh.

Taylor is due a base salary of $7 million in 2014, and the 11th-year veteran has an enormous cap hit ($11.94 million) due to the contract restructures that turned salary into signing bonus money.

He will have to accept a pay cut to return to the Steelers and a couple of things Taylor said on Thursday make it seem like he is open to one.

Taylor is well aware that age -- he turns 34 in May -- and the Steelers' salary-cap situation will shape upcoming discussions between the organization and his agent, Joel Segal. And he said he won't let pride get in the way of decisions he has to make regarding his future.

“You've got to understand it's a business,” Taylor said. “You've got to understand as a business it will always be a young man's sport and I understand that.”

One of the Steelers' top priorities this offseason is getting younger in the secondary, and Taylor's play slipped enough last season that near the end of it defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau stopped flipping his cornerbacks so Taylor could shadow marquee wide receivers.

But if the Steelers don't bring Taylor back for another season they will go into the 2014 season with Cortez Allen and William Gay as their starting cornerbacks. And there is no experienced depth behind them unless the Steelers sign a free-agent cornerback.

The Steelers are going to draft at least one cornerback early, and Taylor would give them the luxury of not having to depend on rookie cornerbacks next season while also helping those players adjust to the NFL.

As for playing safety, the Steelers have not given any indication that Taylor could move to the back end of their defense. But he is serious enough about doing it that he has talked with Steelers defensive backs coach Carnell Lake and Rod Woodson about what such a transition would entail.

Lake and Woodson each played cornerback and safety during their respective NFL careers.

“I want to play football so if they ask me (to play safety) I'm doing it regardless,” Taylor said.
PITTSBURGH -- Mike Tomlin has filled the one opening he has on his staff right now, and it looks like the Pittsburgh Steelers coach hit a home run.

Mike Munchak has agreed to become the Steelers' next offensive line coach, per ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter, and the fourth one during Tomlin's seven-year tenure.

Munchak interviewed in Pittsburgh last Friday and his history makes him the ideal choice to mold a young offensive line that returns every starter next season and should also get Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey back from a major knee injury.

Munchak, one of the greatest guards in NFL history, is in the Pro Football of Fame, and he also distinguished himself coaching the offensive lines in Houston and Tennessee.

Munchak rose to head coach in Tennessee but he was fired earlier this month after the Titans went 7-9 and he refused to make sweeping changes to his staff.

Munchak has extensive experience teaching the outside zone blocking scheme that would appear to be an ideal fit for rookie running back Le'Veon Bell. The Steelers installed the scheme last year but ditched it following the torn knee that Pouncey sustained eight snaps into the Steelers' season opener.

Munchak has Pennsylvania roots as he is a Scranton native who starred at Penn State in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

He becomes the third assistant on Tomlin's staff who was previously a head coach joining defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and offensive coordinator Todd Haley in that distinction.

Munchak takes over for Jack Bicknell Jr., whom Tomlin fired after just one season.
PITTSBURGH -- A surprising name has surfaced in connection with the opening the Baltimore Ravens have at offensive coordinator.

Coach John Harbaugh announced on Tuesday that Pittsburgh Steelers running backs coach Kirby Wilson is among four finalists for the job that became open when the Detroit Lions hired Jim Caldwell as their head coach.

Wilson is eminently qualified for the job, and he probably would have been promoted to offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh had he not been badly burned in a house fire in January, 2012.

The surprise is that the Steelers have granted Wilson permission to interview with their chief rival. Wilson is to meet with Harbaugh this week, presumably in Mobile, Ala., where NFL coaches are scouting Senior Bowl practices and interviewing draft prospects.

The Steelers could have blocked Wilson from interviewing with the Ravens since it is not for a head-coaching job. The guess here is that Mike Tomlin does not want to deny Wilson, who has been with him since 2007 in Pittsburgh, an opportunity given how loyal Wilson has been and what he persevered through to return to coaching.

Wilson would be attractive to the Ravens because of Baltimore's need to fix a running game that faltered badly in 2013. The Ravens averaged just 83.0 rushing yards per game, ranking 30th in the NFL in that cateogry. They averaged just 3.1 yards per cary, last in the NFL.

Wilson is the second Steelers assistant coach who has been linked to a coordinator job elsewhere.

Linebackers coach Keith Butler was considered one of the favorites to become new coach Ken Whisenhunt’s defensive coordinator in Tennessee. But Butler, who is considered the heir apparent to Dick LeBeau in Pittsburgh, never interviewed for the job.

In addition to Wilson, the other finalists for the job in Baltimore are former Rams head coach and Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, former Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, and Ravens wide receivers coach Jim Hostler.

There has been only one change to Tomlin's coaching staff so far, as he fired offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr., this month.

Former Titans coach Mike Munchak interviewed for the job of offensive line coach last week in Pittsburgh.
PITTSBURGH -- Free safety Ryan Clark probably won’t return for another season with the Pittsburgh Steelers, but he made clear that there shouldn’t be a question about defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s future with the team.

LeBeau, 76, has said he wants to return in 2014, and all signs point to that happening -- even if coach Mike Tomlin did not commit to retaining either coordinator this week.

“He’s still sharp, he’s able to make the calls and create the defense we need each and every week,” Clark said. “So when you have him like that, when you have the experience that he’s had, why would you kick him out of football? Why would you not want him in the building? So I think if he wants to come back, he will.”

[+] EnlargeLeBeau
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesDefensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's unit ranked
No. 13 in total defense this season.
The Steelers led the NFL in total defense in 2011 and 2012, but slipped to No. 13 this season.

There were plenty of reasons for that decline. LeBeau slowing down because of age is not among them.

He could easily pass for someone who is 20 years younger and, as Clark observed, “He’s just the same coach LeBeau. Does his push-ups, does his jogs, runs around the field, excited about work every morning. He’s still sharp.”

It’s hard to put into words the respect and love LeBeau commands from his players, and I’m talking every one of them.

Does that mean he should be allowed to coach as long as he wants? No.

But I think LeBeau and the Steelers will both know when it’s time for him to go -- and presumably turn over his coordinator duties to linebackers coach Keith Butler.

The Steelers don’t need a new coordinator to again become one of the top defenses in the NFL. They need a couple of more playmakers, an infusion of youth in the secondary, and maybe a prototypical nose tackle to help shore up the run defense. LeBeau, and I cannot state this strongly enough, is part of the solution, not the problem.

“I know he’s still very capable,” Clark said of LeBeau, “so I’m sure if he wants to come back there’s nobody that’s going to lock him out of this building.”

Clark, one of 21 Steelers who will become unrestricted free agents in March, is facing that very real possibility.

He is well aware that he is on the wrong side of 30 and that the Steelers parted ways with franchise cornerstones Hines Ward, James Farrior, James Harrison, Aaron Smith and Casey Hampton the previous two years.

“I understand how the process works,” said the 32-year-old Clark, who just completed his 12th NFL season. “I also know just recently how it’s worked for guys over 10 years, guys over 30, so I understand it could be a slow process.”

Clark has said the he intends to play next season, even if it is not with the Steelers.

“It’s been an awesome experience, either way it goes,” he said of his time with the Steelers. "I’m excited to see what happens next.”

Steelers CBs staying put against Gordon

December, 26, 2013
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PITTSBURGH -- Josh Gordon, who torched the Steelers for 237 receiving yards last month, won't have Ike Taylor shadowing him Sunday at Heinz Field.

Taylor
The Steelers have stopped flipping their cornerbacks so Taylor can cover the opposing team's top wideout. The change isn't an indictment of Taylor, Dick LeBeau said, as much as it is a reflection of the Steelers' desire to minimize the moving parts on defense.

"We didn't think we were playing anywhere near our capability and we thought that might settle us down," LeBeau said. "I think to some extent it has. So we've just stayed with that formula."

Taylor has played almost exclusively at right cornerback the past three games with Cortez Allen starting at left cornerback. Allen, slowed early in the season by a high ankle sprain, returned an interception 40 yards for a touchdown last Sunday at Green Bay.

"I think once he got back to 100 percent he's played fine," LeBeau said. "He's got good ball skills. He's got good hand-eye coordination and I think he's coming along."

Containing Gordon will be the Steelers' top priority but LeBeau said the Steelers are also expecting to see the "Wildcat" offense, which the Browns have run this season with rookie tight end MarQueis Gray.

Gray, a converted quarterback, has rushed for 39 yards on five carries this season. He was inactive when the Steelers and Browns met last month in Cleveland but the Steelers are preparing for Gray.

And LeBeau said the 6-4, 250-pounder can throw out of the "Wildcat" even though he has yet to attempt a pass in the NFL.

"He went to the (NFL scouting) combine as a quarterback and did all of the passing drills there," LeBeau said, "so he is a very capable passer."
PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers will take one decided advantage into their first meeting with the Packers since Super Bowl XLV: a relatively clean bill of health.

Keisel
Keisel
All of the Steelers dealing with injuries, including defensive end Brett Keisel, practiced Friday and are listed as probable for the 4:25 p.m. ET game on Sunday at Lambeau Field. The Packers, meanwhile, will be without Pro Bowl quarterback Aaron Rodgers for at least another week.

The Packers have officially ruled out Rodgers, who broke his collarbone on Nov. 4, and Matt Flynn will again start in his place.

The difference between the two is huge, especially when it comes to the Steelers.

Rodgers lit up the Steelers the two previous times he played against them, including the Super Bowl win he led the Packers to in 2010.

Rodgers has thrown for 687 yards and six touchdowns with no interceptions in two games against the Steelers.

“He just knows where everybody is, and he’s so quick with the ball,” Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. “He’s like (Dan) Marino the way he gets rid of the ball.”

Flynn has resuscitated his career since returning to Green Bay, and he has led the Packers to back-to-back comeback wins.

LeBeau said the Packers' offense hasn’t changed with Flynn playing quarterback.

“The ball’s out quick and they’re not dissimilar to the Bengals,” LeBeau said.

Keisel will likely be among the Steelers who play against the Flynn-led Packers offense.

Keisel (foot) practiced fully on Friday, and the 12th-year veteran is expected to play Sunday after missing all but a few snaps of the Steelers’ past five games because of plantar fasciitis.

Keisel is third on the Steelers with 23 quarterback pressures.
PITTSBURGH -- Steelers linebacker Terence Garvin had been as anonymous as any NFL position player can be prior to last Sunday night.

But now just about everyone associated with the sport knows who Garvin is, including the league officials who mete out punishment for on-field infractions.

The NFL has fined Garvin $25,000 for a block that seriously injured Bengals punter Kevin Huber -- and fueled debate on the delicate balance the NFL has tried to maintain between protecting players and maintaining the integrity of the game.

[+] EnlargeKevin Huber and Terence Garvin
Jason Bridge/USA TODAY SportsThe NFL fined Terence Garvin $25,000 for this hit on Kevin Huber.
But to hear Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau talk, Garvin may not always be known for the vicious hit that ended Huber's season.

“I think he's got a good future,” LeBeau said. “I'm pleased with the way he works. He has continued to improve. I think he's just done an outstanding job.”

Garvin is the only Steelers rookie who has played in every game this season, and he made team in late August as an undrafted rookie. That might not mean as much in some organizations, but the Steelers have signed a number of such players through the years who became significant contributors if not stars.

The list includes 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison as well as Willie Parker, who still has longest run in Super Bowl history, to name a few.

Garvin has not solidified his spot on the 53-man roster by any means, but the player who first had to try out for the Steelers before getting signed for offseason practices has been making an impression on his coaches ever since joining the organization last May.

“There were about three straight practices where he intercepted one or two balls every practice,” LeBeau said. “He showed that ability and instinct to find the ball and get it.”

He also flashed that ability in the practices that coach Mike Tomlin derisively refers to football in shorts. But Garvin continued to stand out during training camp, and he played his way onto the Steelers as a special teamer.

He has done well enough in that phase of the game to earn some snaps when the Steelers go to one of their sub packages on defense.

“You give a young guy an opportunity to make plays on special teams and he's done that and has been consistent and productive,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “Guys that usually do it in that phase usually have the potential to do it on offense.”

That is another way of saying the Steelers don't view Garvin as just a player who can hurl his body around on special teams for them.

Garvin played safety at West Virginia, and the 6-foot-3, 235-pounder is playing -- and learning the nuances of -- inside linebacker for the first time of his career.

Garvin has added about 15 pounds since signing with the Steelers, and Tomlin said the team is leaving its options about where he plays in the future.

“I think it's a blank canvas with him,” Tomlin said.
PITTSBURGH -- Defensive end Brett Keisel again practiced on a limited basis, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are hopeful that he will be able to play in some sort of capacity Sunday in Green Bay.

Keisel
Keisel
Keisel has played in just one of the past five Steelers’ games -- and he lasted less than 10 snaps Thanksgiving night in Baltimore -- because of a recurring foot problem. Keisel, who is second on the Steelers with 23 quarterback pressures, could be nearing the end of his Steelers career.

The 12th-year veteran is in the final year of his contract, and he will have to at least take a major pay cut to return to the Steelers.

Keisel has said he will want to play beyond 2013, but that he can’t envision wearing a different uniform. His more immediate concern is trying to finish the season strong despite the plantar fasciitis that has plagued him.

“He’s been getting a little better every week, and I think he’s in a more positive frame of mind just being around him,” Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. “I really think that he feels he’s got a real legitimate shot (of playing against the Packers). I think there’s a real chance of him playing some.”

If Keisel is unable to play against the Packers, Ziggy Hood will start at right defensive end.

Keisel was the only Steelers players who didn’t practice fully on Thursday.

Strong safety Troy Polamalu, tight end Heath Miller and wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery (shoulder) all returned to practice after missing drills on Wednesday.

Polamalu and Miller were given maintenance days for the first practice of the week.

LeBeau pleased with Jarvis Jones' growth

December, 14, 2013
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PITTSBURGH -- Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has given Jarvis Jones several votes of confidence this season.

Jones
LeBeau added to his total earlier this week, a day after the rookie outside linebacker acknowledged that he has been disappointed about his production this season.

“I’m very pleased with his progress,” LeBeau said Thursday of the Steelers’ first-round pick in April. “His out-of-position arrows have diminished. He almost is never in the wrong place now. I think the more comfortable he gets, I think you’re going to see that this guy is going to be a really good football player.”

Jones became the Steelers’ starting right outside linebacker after the second game of the season, but he struggled to consistently put pressure on opposing quarterbacks and gave way to Jason Worilds.

Jones is now playing behind LaMarr Woodley, who flipped sides with Worilds because of how well the latter has played at left outside linebacker.

Jones’ development is critical for the Steelers because it is unlikely that they will keep both Worilds and Woodley beyond this season.

Worilds, who is having a breakout campaign, will be an unrestricted free agent after this season. The Steelers probably won’t be able to re-sign Worilds unless they part ways with Woodley, who signed a six-year, $61.5 million contract in 2011.

The offseason will be a key one for Jones, who is 6-foot-2 and 245 pounds. He knows he has to get bigger and strengthen his grasp of the defense.

Jones is the first rookie to start at outside linebacker since the Steelers went to a 3-4 defense in 1982, and that distinction shows how steep the learning curve is for a young player at his position.

He has just one sack and 30 tackles this season, but LeBeau is anything but discouraged with the progress the 17th overall pick of the 2013 draft has made.

“He’s been asked to play a little bit more than what we normally ask our first-year linebackers to play,” LeBeau said. “In the end, that’s going to be a big benefit for him because he’s got that on-the-job training and in-game experience.”

When told that LeBeau said he was on the right track, Jones smiled.

“He’s right,” the former Georgia star said. “I’ve just got to continue to work hard and continue to take advantage of my opportunities to get better.”

Steelers players want LeBeau back, too

December, 13, 2013
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PITTSBURGH -- Mike Tomlin declined to discuss Dick LeBeau’s future with the Steelers, telling ESPN.com on Friday that he won’t talk about offseason issues until after the season.

LeBeau
If input from the players is given a lot of weight, LeBeau will return next season as the Steelers’ defensive coordinator.

“He’s the best at what he does,” strong safety Troy Polamalu said. “Because we may not be having as good a year as we’ve had in the past does not mean by any means that he has lost touch.”

LeBeau, who turned 76 in September, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on Thursday that he wants to coach beyond this season. His age and a down season by the Steelers’ defense has led to questions about whether LeBeau will be back in 2014.

The Steelers have slipped to No. 13 in total defense after allowing the fewest yards in the NFL the previous two seasons. They have also given up 11 plays that have covered at least 50 yards.

LeBeau said on Thursday that he doesn’t believe the Steelers need to tear down the defense and rebuild it. His faith in the players is reciprocated by them.

“There’s just something about him,” cornerback Ike Taylor said. “You can’t even put your [finger] on it. There’s just something about his presence, there’s something about his knowledge, there’s something about his humbleness, there’s something about how he handles each individual. We all respect that.”

LeBeau is in his second stint as the Steelers’ defensive coordinator. Since returning to Pittsburgh in 2004 the Steelers are first in the NFL in 13 defensive categories, including scoring, rushing and passing.

LeBeau, who is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a player, is widely regarded as one of the most innovative defensive minds in NFL history. His most enduring legacy, however, may be the connection he has made with the players he has coached and the impact he has had on them.

“I love him as a coach. I love him as a person. Just to be around him and get coached by him is an honor,” rookie outside linebacker Jarvis Jones said. “He still runs and jogs, still does push-ups, has a lot of energy. For somebody his age it’s unbelievable that he continues to do the things he does on a daily basis. He’s healthy as you can be. Hopefully he’s here for the rest of my career, too. I’m just going to take advantage of the time we have here together and make the best of it.”
PITTSBURGH -- Dick LeBeau, at his folksy best, gave this answer when asked if encroaching age is linked to defensive breakdowns this season that have been as stunning as they are alarming for the Steelers.

“My dear cousin, who’s like a brother to me, says the aging process sucks,” LeBeau said during his weekly chat with reporters. “Nobody knows that any better than I do.”

LeBeau
Actually quite the opposite is true when it comes to the Steelers’ defensive coordinator.

If anybody has aged more gracefully than LeBeau I’d like to see it. He is 76 but could easily pass for someone 20 years younger. He is still as quick-witted and sharp as ever -- even if some want to foolishly believe that LeBeau suddenly forgot how to coach after celebrating his birthday on Sept. 9.

What has seemingly aged in front of LeBeau is a defense that allowed the fewest yards in the NFL in each of the previous two seasons. The Steelers have given up 11 plays that have covered at least 50 or more yards this season, and the biggest culprit has to be age.

Or is it?

“I don’t believe the problems we’re experiencing there are age-related,” LeBeau said. “I really don’t.”

That appears to be a tough sell even if LeBeau has forgotten more about defense than most people will ever know.

Four of Pittsburgh's starters are north of 30, including three in a secondary that has collectively looked a step slow. But LeBeau said communication issues and players getting out of position are the primary reasons why the Steelers have been so prone to yielding big plays.

And count him among the few outside of Steelers headquarters who don’t think the team needs to dismantle the defense during an offseason that will bring plenty of change to the organization.

“I definitely don’t think the defense needs rebuilding,” LeBeau said of a unit that has slipped to 13th this season in yards allowed. “Maybe their coach is getting a little old. I think the players can still get it done. I do.”

LeBeau’s players still believe he can get it done, and they have never wavered in their faith in him. As for why he still has confidence in his defense, LeBeau said the breakdowns have happened in a handful of games -- not every one of them.

So have the leaks that the Steelers defense have sprung at seemingly the worst times made this season frustrating, confounding, disappointing for LeBeau? All of the above?

“None of that is what this is about,” LeBeau said. “If a coach is applying his profession steadfastly he won’t have time to even think about that kind of question you asked. I just work on what I see and trying to get us better. What can I do better? What can I help our players do better? And we’ve been plenty busy doing that.”
PITTSBURGH – The greatest encounter I never had with James Harrison happened about a week after the Steelers outside linebacker griped that officials had allowed too much holding in a 26-21 win at Jacksonville in 2008.

When prodded why he hadn’t gotten more calls a still-incensed Harrison said that maybe the officials had money on the game.

I had to write it and less than a week later Harrison received a $25,000 fine by the NFL. He taped the letter explaining why he had been fined on the wall next to his locker, and he asked a pack of reporters later in the day something to the effect of where is that (expletive) Scott Brown? He owes me $25,000.

[+] EnlargeJames Harrison
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsJames Harrison helped Pittsburgh's defense become one of the NFL's elite with his intensity and work ethic.
I paraphrased what Harrison said because I wasn’t there when he said it. I was at the opposite end of the Steelers locker room, and to this day I’m glad I only heard second hand what Harrison had said.

The reason: I’m not sure how I would have reacted had I been among the reporters and Harrison showed any inclination that he was serious about collecting my supposed debt.

Nobody that I have covered on a regular basis could intimidate the way James Harrison does, and that is one of many reasons why Steelers fans need to cheer him Sunday night even though he will be playing in a Bengals uniform at Heinz Field.

Harrison emerged as the most unlikely link to the “Steel Curtain” defenses, having been discarded by the Steelers three times before finally sticking with the club.

But his menacing glower came to define the defenses that helped return the Steelers to prominence as much as Jack Lambert’s gap-toothed snarl served as the ultimate snapshot for the defenses that transformed Pittsburgh from perennial also-ran into the team of the 1970s.

It is fitting that Lambert and Harrison both played their college ball at Kent State since the two were so alike in temperament and approach to the game.

Harrison could be as ornery as he was intimidating and as Steelers free safety Ryan Clark said, “Was he the nicest guy ever? Not really.”

But Harrison turned into a leader and the type of player others would fall behind because they saw what took place behind the scenes.

Harrison simply outworked everyone to go from undrafted and unwanted free agent to perennial Pro Bowler and one of the premier pass-rushers in the NFL.

Consider what Dick LeBeau recalled after returning for a second stint as Steelers defensive coordinator in 2004: “There were two guys in here every day, Brett Keisel and James Harrison. They both ended up being pretty dang good football players.”

Here is what Jason Worilds said when I asked him Thursday if he has been around anyone who worked harder than Harrison.

“I haven’t seen it,” said Worilds, who apprenticed for three seasons behind Harrison. “His approach to the game, day in and day out, was the biggest thing I took from him.”

That is but a fraction of his legacy with the Steelers.

And Harrison’s body of work -- not to mention his famous body slam of a trespassing Browns fan -- has earned the cheers Steelers fans should shower him with Sunday night when he first steps onto the turf at Heinz Field.

Steelers' Friday leftovers

December, 6, 2013
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A hodgepodge of topics from this week at the Steelers:

Bracing for Wallace: Teams have been throwing deep on the Steelers, who have given up 11 passing plays that have covered at least 40 yards. You can bet the Dolphins will take a couple of shots on Sunday with Mike Wallace, one of the fastest players in the NFL. Wallace has not gotten behind opposing defensive backs with as much regularity this season as he has just nine catches of 20 yards or longer -- the same number as Steelers' No. 3 wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery. The Steelers, however, are a favorable matchup for Wallace given how they have struggled with the speed of Calvin Johnson, Josh Gordon and Torrey Smith the past three weeks. When asked if teams are challenging the Steelers with the deep ball more, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said, "I would say that they're not really throwing it deeper any more than they ever have. It just appears to me that they're catching it a little more often than they did. We've got to cut that out. The games that we've been successful defensively are the games that we have done that."

Keeping the faith: Dropped passes were an issue for Emmanuel Sanders in the Steelers' 22-20 loss to the Ravens but Ben Roethlisberger doesn't sound like his confidence in the fourth-year veteran has wavered. "We cannot afford to have guys get down if they do have a drop because I have bad passes," Roethlisberger said. "Everyone makes mistakes. That's why we're human. I'm proud of the way those guys have played this year." The Steelers used their no-huddle offense to get back into the Ravens game in the second half, and they scored three touchdowns after intermission. Injuries along the offensive line has raised questions about how much the Steelers will be able to use the no-huddle offense against the Dolphins. But Roethlisberger said he doesn't think the injuries will force the Steelers to rein in the no-huddle offense on Sunday.

Biding his time: Markus Wheaton's potential has not translated into much production, and offensive coordinator Todd Haley said part of the reason for that is there aren't enough snaps to get the rookie wideout more involved in the passing game. Wheaton has caught just six passes for 64 yards. He missed four games following surgery to fix a broken right pinkie. "He was showing a lot of signs that he was going to help us," Haley said. "He had some setbacks. When they occurred the guys that played were playing at a high level. He's continued to work and get better. He knows when his opportunity comes he has to make plays."

Welcome back: Sunday will be something of a homecoming for Joe Philbin. The Dolphins coach played his college ball at Washington & Jefferson in suburban Pittsburgh, and he nearly became the head coach at his alma mater in the late 1990s. Philbin said he was about 12 hours from accepting the head coaching job at W&J when Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz offered him a job. Philbin went from Harvard to Iowa where he coached the offensive line and that move put him on a path toward the NFL. Philbin recalled how he gauged his wife's reaction to going to Iowa instead of W&J. "I asked her if she liked corn. She had certainly never been to Iowa," said Philbin, who spent four seasons at Iowa before moving onto the Packers. "It's funny how things work out."

Scouting Tannehill: Second-year Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill has thrown 17 touchdown passes but also 13 interceptions. Tannehill ranks 24th in the NFL in passer rating (83.2) though he is two sports ahead of Indianapolis' Andrew Luck, the first overall pick of the 2012 draft. "His mobility is surprising for me," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "He's capable of creating when plays break down."

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