The Sad Truth: Losing Dick LeBeau Is Good for the Pittsburgh Steelers
The place was so loud that I couldn't even hear my father, sitting next to me in the stands, cheering after the Deshea Townsend touchdown. A pick-six against Tom Brady made the game 21-3, and it was still the first quarter.
The Patriots' 21-game winning streak, an NFL record, was bound to come to an end.
And it did.
I saw a lot of big defensive plays like that one from my family's Section 238 seats at Heinz Field. Those plays weren't all that uncommon -- under the direction of defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, the Steelers, for years, had one of the fiercest defenses in the NFL.
Lately though, things have been different. What was once a feared defense has become a detriment to an offensively-skilled team. Instead of fans getting excited for the defense to take the field, they've become nervous, assuming the secondary will give up a big play, or the rush defense will be gashed for six or seven yards on first down.
A coordinator, 77 years of age, has lost his magic touch.
When it was announced on Saturday that Dick LeBeau was parting ways with the Steelers, the immediate reaction for any Pittsburgh fan was sadness. It wasn't because it didn't make sense -- the sadness came because LeBeau had become a football legend in the Steel City.
We -- even if you hate the Steelers -- can't forget that. From 2004 through 2012, per numberFire's Net Expected Points metric, the Steelers defense ranked worse than 11th just once. It finished as the best or second-best defense three times. The unit, under LeBeau, was better than average for nine straight seasons.
When the Steelers entered a season with Dick LeBeau as defensive coordinator, before last year, you knew they were going to compete.
But trouble hit in 2013. The Steelers defense finished as the 17th-best one according to our metrics, and what was always an absurdly-good run-stuffing unit became the exact opposite of that. The trend continued in 2014, as Pittsburgh's defense ranked 25th in the league in efficiency, with a pass defense that finished as one of the worst in the NFL.
Things started to get worse even before 2013, too. From 2004 to 2010, the Steelers were able to generate an average of roughly 29 takeaways per season. Over the last four years, LeBeau's defense generated 15, 20, 20 and 21 turnovers.
LeBeau's blitz-heavy defense had 40 or more sacks in all but two seasons from 2004 to 2010. Over the last four years, the Steelers have sacked opposing quarterbacks 35, 37, 34 and 33 times per season.
The defense just hasn't been the same.
It's sad to see LeBeau moving on, but it could be a good thing for the Steelers. This is mostly because the offense has become a machine. Ben Roethlisberger's unit ranked fifth in the NFL this year according to NEP, and it has two of the best offensive pieces in the entire NFL in Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. Roethlisberger will be 33 in March, meaning there's not a whole lot of time left for him to get another Super Bowl victory. Considering the team weakness has clearly been on the defensive side of the ball, something had to change. And that change was watching Dick LeBeau walk away from a job he's had since 2004.
The final two seasons of LeBeau's time in Pittsburgh shouldn't come close to overshadowing the incredible job he did coaching the team through the Ben Roethlisbeger era. Without Dick LeBeau, we have no James Harrison 100-yard touchdown in the Super Bowl. Without Dick LeBeau, the image of Joey Porter sacking Peyton Manning in the Divisional Round of the playoffs in 2006 doesn't exist. Without Dick LeBeau, Troy Polamalu's pick-six at the end of the AFC Championship against the rival Ravens in 2009 probably would have never happened.
Without Dick LeBeau, the Steelers probably don't have a fifth and sixth Super Bowl victory.
It was just time to move on.