Dick LeBeau is the Forrest Gump of the NFL. A Hall of Fame cornerback who played with several other Hall of Famers, LeBeau then enjoyed a lengthy coaching career that included two Super Bowl wins while coaching for and against some of the greatest players in league history.
LeBeau's glittering career included presiding over the 2008 Steelers defense, a historically dominant unit that spearheaded Pittsburgh's sixth Super Bowl victory. The '08 defense is the focus of a book LeBeau recently wrote that he expects to be available to the public in 2024. The book will be titled A Legendary Defense, an ode to what Steelers coach Mike Tomlin told the unit before it finished off the Steelers' 27-23 win over the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII.
"I don't know whether I've got to pay Mike royalties for that or not," LeBeau joked during his interview with Bryant McFadden on the latest episode of the "All Things Covered" podcast. "It's going to be worth the wait, I guarantee you that. It's going to be a great book, I think."
LeBeau shared one of the main reasons why Pittsburgh's 2008 defense was so successful. That season, the Steelers defense -- led by Hall of Fame safety Troy Polamalu and Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison -- allowed just 13.9 points per game. The unit led the league in scoring, passing, third-down efficiency, red zone efficiency, and was second in rushing.
"You could all tackle, and you all wanted to tackle," LeBeau told McFadden, a former Steelers cornerback who was one of the key members of that defense. "Defense is always going to be about finding the guy with the ball and getting his butt on the ground. It was like kicking a beehive when that ball was snapped. You were after that ball and you did not miss tackles."
While his career as a coach is Hall of Fame worthy, LeBeau was inducted as a player in 2010, largely on the strength of his 62 career interceptions while being part of a legendary defensive backfield with the Lions that included fellow Hall of Famers Dick "Night Train" Lane, Len Barney and Yale Lary. He was Polamalu's presenter when he was inducted in 2021. Polamalu is currently the only member of the '08 Steelers defense who is in the Hall of Fame. LeBeau, however, feels that Harrison is also deserving of a gold jacket and a bronze bust in Canton, Ohio.
"He exceeded anybody's expectations with what he accomplished," LeBeau said of Harrison, a former undrafted rookie who retired as the Steelers' all-time career sack leader. "I hope someday he's in the Hall of Fame."
Harrison was cut several times before finally sticking with the Steelers in 2004. LeBeau, who is proud to say that he was not on any of the Pittsburgh coaching staffs that released Harrison, vividly remembers his introduction to Harrison, which occurred in 2004 when he was reviewing film of that day's training camp practice. LeBeau said that then-Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler was the first person that put Harrison on his radar when Pittsburgh was looking to add to a linebacker to the roster.
"I'm watching No. 92," LeBeau recalled, "and I said (to Butler), 'Nobody is blocking this 92. Who is this guy?. ... Let's make sure that we get him plenty of reps and plenty of plays when we get into these preseason games, because I ain't seen anybody block him yet.' And you know something? I still haven't seen anybody block him."
LeBeau, 85, waited a long time before he was able to hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy. He was 68 when the Steelers defeated the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL while becoming the first sixth seed to win it all.
He came close several times earlier. In 1981, LeBeau was the Bengals defensive backs coach (one of his former Bengals cornerbacks, Ken Riley, will be inducted in the Hall of Fame this summer) when Cincinnati lost a close game to the 49ers in Super Bowl XVI. Seven years later, LeBeau was the Bengals defensive coordinator when Cincinnati faced San Francisco in a Super Bowl rematch. The Bengals held the 49ers' explosive offense to just 13 points for over 59 minutes before Joe Montana capped off San Francisco's historic 92-yard drive with his game-winning touchdown pass to John Taylor.
LeBeau's first stint as the Steelers defensive coordinator included a third trip to the Super Bowl. In Super Bowl XXX, Pittsburgh was a heavy underdog against the Cowboys, who had won two of the previous three Super Bowls. But despite LeBeau's defense allowing just 254 yards to the Cowboys, two interceptions by Dallas cornerback Larry Brown prevented Pittsburgh from pulling off the upset.
The 2005 Steelers finally ended LeBeau's wait. That postseason, the Steelers defense allowed just 62 points in four games. The most impressive game during that span may have been the Steelers' 21-18 win over the Colts in the AFC divisional round. In that game, McFadden, a rookie at the time, made several key plays on the Colts' final drive that ultimately led to a missed field goal.
LeBeau remembers spending several minutes staring at the final score after Pittsburgh won Super Bowl XL. He soaked in a moment that was 46 years in the making.
"It's unexplainable, really," LeBeau said of the feeling of finally winning a Super Bowl. "Buffalo had those great teams and they went to four straight Super Bowls, and they lost all four of them and haven't been back again. I had gone twice in Cincinnati and lost both of them in close games. I wasn't a young coach then. ... All this time it's starting to look to me that, it looks like I'm going to be one of those guys that gets there every now and then, is lucky enough to have a long coaching career but never win a Super Bowl.
"I walked over to the bench (after Super Bowl XL). There was nobody within 50 yards of me. The confetti was raining down, and I was staring at the scoreboard. … This isn't a dream. That's the only thing I really remember from that game. I sat there for a full five minutes, just starring at that scoreboard, (thinking) we finally did it."
LeBeau, the mastermind behind several defensive concepts that continue to be run by NFL teams, also revealed what was his main focus whenever he was preparing to face Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and the other great quarterbacks and offenses during his time as a defensive coordinator.
"I didn't care what they did when they were 10 or 20 points ahead," LeBeau said. "I wanted to try to figure out, if I could, when their back was against the wall and they had to have a play and most people in the whole stadium and on both sides of the field knew they were throwing the ball, what protection you were going to get. When you could identity what they had the most confidence in, then I would start looking at how do I start tearing that house down."
LeBeau is clearly appreciative of his NFL career. That appreciation is reflected when McFadden asked LeBeau if there is any player that he didn't coach but wish he could have.
"I played with the great Night Train Lane, who was certainly the greatest character that ever played football," LeBeau said. "I played with Len Barney who was, in my opinion, the most skilled athletic cornerman that there ever will be. Beyond that, I coached with Rod Woodson. I coached Carnell Lake. I coached Troy Polamalu. I coached James Harrison. If I start naming them, we're gonna be here forever. So I have no player, no player that I wish I could have coached.
"I'm so grateful for where I have been and what I was allowed to do."