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Pittsburgh Steelers innovator Dick LeBeau never shows his age

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TAMPA, Fla. - He is a master of disguise, so perhaps it's not surprising that Steelers defensive co-ordinator Dick LeBeau once was actor Michael Caine's double in a movie.

LeBeau's Steelers often go out of character, too - showing one look but doing something unconventional after the snap. One of the intriguing games-within-a-game during the Super Bowl on Sunday will be LeBeau's manoeuvring against Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt, the former Steelers offensive co-ordinator and one of LeBeau's best friends.

Then again, almost anybody LeBeau works with becomes his friend, and a good one. LeBeau is the NFL's oldest assistant coach at 71, yet his players rave about his fatherly presence, calm demeanour, steadying hand and non-confrontational style.

Is there another NFL assistant whose players call him Dad? Or who developed a defensive scheme because Bobby Knight, his former Ohio State classmate, influenced him with his pressure tactics in basketball?

"I think he is the best football coach I've ever been around," safety Ryan Clark said. "Just as a person and for the liveliness he brings to work every morning. The first thing he says is, 'It's great to be alive.' For a man to be 71 and that lively, doing push-ups on the field and talking about how good he is at golf, it's just awesome."

In a fortunate coincidence for them, the Steelers reached the Super Bowl in LeBeau's 50th NFL season - 16 as a star cornerback, 34 as a head and assistant coach. Being centre stage in Tampa allows them to lobby for the Hall of Fame induction of the former star cornerback and the inventor of the zone blitz defence.

His players already feel as though they've won in Tampa: LeBeau told them he plans to return next season, scuttling rumours he was weighing retirement if the Steelers win a second Super Bowl in four seasons.

"I could barely walk before he came here," All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu said. "He has everything to do with the success of everybody on this team. He does a great job of putting the right guys in the right situations to be successful."

LeBeau gets along so well with his players that the decision to return next season was easy. He was chosen by NFL coaches, players and executives as The Sporting News co-ordinator of the year.

"They keep me young, there's no question about it," LeBeau said. "As long as my health holds up and people want me to work, I think I'd be pretty foolish to leave these guys."

The Super Bowl winner may be determined by how effectively LeBeau's league-leading defence controls Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner and playmaking receivers Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston. The offence is much like the one Whisenhunt, and top assistant Russ Grimm, once ran in Pittsburgh during practices against LeBeau's defence.

"I know we're going to see some things that coach Whisenhunt's done before, we're going to see some things he hasn't done," LeBeau said. "I know he'll have some surprises. The thing that makes him so formidable are the people they have doing them."

Conversely, Arizona must go against what may be the best Steelers defence since the Steel Curtain of the '70s. The defensive linemen drop into pass coverage, Polamalu seems to cover an acre on every play, cornerback Ike Taylor is a tough matchup for any receiver and outside linebacker James Harrison is the defensive player of the year.

No wonder Warner said he hates LeBeau, although he wasn't being serious.

LeBeau has had two weeks to devise a game plan for slowing Fitzgerald, who has an NFL playoff-record 419 yards receiving in three games, and the occasionally turnover-prone Warner. Still, LeBeau's players won't be surprised if he revises much of it after the kickoff.

"He inspires everybody on that defence," said defensive end Aaron Smith. "He's such a football mastermind for coming up with schemes and plays to stop the opposing offence."

This is LeBeau's second stop in Pittsburgh. The first came on former coach Bill Cowher's initial staff in 1992 as defensive backs coach, and he later became co-ordinator of the mid-1990s Blitzburgh defence that featured Rod Woodson. He returned to his native Cincinnati to his former job as Bengals defensive co-ordinator in 1997 and was their head coach from 2000-02.

He came back to Cowher's staff in 2004 and was retained by Tomlin two years ago, partly because LeBeau is so admired by his players.

"From a Pro Bowler to a free agent guy, he treats all of us the same, and that's why we respect him," Taylor said.

LeBeau's schemes are complex - according to cornerback William Gay, two seasons are needed to learn them - but LeBeau's philosophy is simple: Put players in position to make plays. Especially if it's a position the offence doesn't expect that player to be in, such as the 350-pound Casey Hampton dropping into pass coverage.

"The players have always enjoyed the pressure scheme. I move them and they like to move," LeBeau said. "I've never been exposed to very many players that didn't like to put pressure on the quarterback and not just sit in one position. The offence makes us adjust to everything - formation, snap count, shifts, no huddles - so it's fun to make them have to adjust."

LeBeau jokes his main job is "staying out of the players' way," but he doesn't hesitate to remind them that his 62 career interceptions for Detroit are more than all of his defensive backs combined.

"Every chance he gets," Hampton said. "Believe me, he tells stories about that all the time."

What other NFL coach would recite from memory "'Twas The Night Before Christmas" to his players each holiday season, a way to remind them that their lives aren't entirely about football? He even stepped out of character in 1970, while playing for the Lions, to be a stunt double for Caine in the movie "Too Late The Hero."

Remarkably, in a sport where head coaches keep getting younger - the newly appointed Raheem Morris of Tampa Bay and Josh McDaniels of Denver are 32 - a coach who is more than twice the age of many remains an innovator in a city that embraces defence perhaps like no other.

"He asks the critical questions," Tomlin said. "He's always looking for an edge, schematics or otherwise. He appreciates the day. He appreciates the journey. He appreciates the process that is required to prepare to play. I think all those things keep him out in front of his competitors."

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