PITTSBURGH (AP) -Not many NFL players refer to their coach as Dad, yet that is what defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is called in the Pittsburgh Steelers' locker room.
Coach Dad, to be precise.
So when the Steelers realized LeBeau's 70th birthday fell on the day of their season opener Sunday in Cleveland, his players decided to do something special. Even more special than those LeBeau throwback uniforms they wore to the Pro Football Hall of Fame last month to lobby for the former Detroit Lions defensive back's induction.
First, they presented him with a gold Rolex watch at their pregame meeting Saturday night. Then they gave him exactly the kind of performance he wanted to start the season, one featuring six sacks, five turnovers and 46 yards rushing allowed in a 34-7 rout of the Browns.
Happy birthday? It was more like Happy Father's Day.
``We love that guy to death. We'd do anything for him,'' defensive captain James Farrior said.
Linebacker Clark Haggans took the analogy further, saying if LeBeau had asked them to take a Steelers flag and plant it atop Browns Stadium, his players would have done so willingly.
There's a reason for all this loyalty, besides LeBeau's ability to teach and motivate. The Steelers love LeBeau's blitz-heavy, come-from-all-angles defense that has played such a decisive role in the 15-1 season of three years ago and the Super Bowl championship of two seasons ago.
They also consider last season's 8-8 record an anomaly, one in which Ben Roethlisberger's mishaps and the uncertainty surrounding coach Bill Cowher's status proved overly distracting. To them, their 6-2 finish was more representative of their overall strength.
While new coach Mike Tomlin also was a defensive coordinator before becoming a head coach, it already seems he is allowing LeBeau to dig deeper into his bag of tricks than Cowher did.
``We gave them some different looks, different angles and really got after them,'' defensive end Aaron Smith said.
LeBeau showed more variations of the Steelers' traditional 3-4 line than in the past, at times rotating two different three-man line combinations.
He also played some 4-3 with four large bodies stacking the line of scrimmage, rather than flanking his three-man line with two faster, standup linebackers. LeBeau used defensive ends Smith and Brett Keisel and nose tackles Casey Hampton and Chris Hoke in that alignment.
``We wanted to get our big guys on the edge and rush their people,'' Tomlin said.
The Steelers came from so many different directions, cornerback Ike Taylor had one of their six sacks even though he rarely blitzes. At times they also used the Tomlin-preferred cover-2 defense that drops the safeties in zone coverage downfield.
``Up front, we played great,'' safety Ryan Clark said. ``We made them one-dimensional and made them throw the ball. We got them out of their comfort zone.''
Former Pro Bowl linebacker Joey Porter, the Steelers most visible defensive personality and the on-field leader for years, is now in Miami. The rest of the defense from that Super Bowl team is largely intact, and LeBeau seems to dream up something new, something different every season.
``We pretty much have the same philosophy and mentality,'' Keisel said. ``There are some changes in the coaching staff and in some of the things we do, but it's pretty much the same team.''
A favorable schedule also might help the Steelers get off to the fast start that eluded them in their post-Super Bowl season a year ago, when they won their opener but dropped six of their next seven.
They have Buffalo and San Francisco at home the next two weeks, games they will be favored to win. After that, it's a Sept. 30 trip to Arizona to meet up with former assistant coaches Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm.
They return home to face Seattle in an Oct. 7 rematch of the February 2006 Super Bowl, then have a week off before the schedule toughens with Denver and Cincinnati on the road.
If the opener is any indicator, this Steelers team doesn't have to worry about being effectively eliminated from the playoffs by midseason.
``It's what I've been saying, the 2007 season starts with us,'' Keisel said, referring to the defense. ``It was a good start.''
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