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Two long-time NFL defensive tacticians -- and close friends -- square off in the Browns-Steelers rivalry

Nov 23, 2012 -- 6:00am

By Tony Grossi


The Morning Kickoff …

The background: Browns defensive coordinator Dick Jauron is an NFL lifer. He has been an NFL player or coach for 36 of his 62 years.

He was a fourth-round draft pick, made the Pro Bowl one year after leading the NFC in punt returns and had 25 career interceptions as a free safety. As a coach, he’s been a defensive coordinator for three teams, a head coach for two teams and was an NFL coach of the year.

A sterling resume, to be sure, but …

Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has been an NFL player or coach for 54 of his 75 years.

He was a fifth-round draft pick – of the Browns, no less – then played cornerback 14 years for the Detroit Lions, made the Pro Bowl three times, retired with 62 career interceptions and still holds the NFL record for consecutive games by a cornerback with 171. In 2010, LeBeau was inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a player.

As a coach, LeBeau is, inarguably, the greatest assistant coach in the league today, and has been for decades. If any assistant coach were elected to the Hall of Fame, he should be the first – but it’s a moot point since LeBeau already is in.

Jauron and LeBeau happen to be best friends.

“He's been a great example for me and a mentor,” Jauron said of LeBeau last year. “If I had a mentor in the professional game, he would be it. He's as good as it gets. He's a good man.”

Hello, goodbye: LeBeau and Jauron both played for the Lions, but they missed each other as teammates by one year. In 1973, LeBeau started his coaching career as special teams coach with the Eagles. That year, the Lions played in Philadelphia and Jauron was introduced by his new teammates to LeBeau before the game.

“The defensive players obviously thought the world of him,” Jauron said.

Jauron later coached for the Lions, but LeBeau, who played for them 14 years, never did.

LeBeau was drafted by the Browns, but never coached for them and Jauron did.

Jauron concluded his playing career with the Cincinnati Bengals in 1981. LeBeau was his position coach for two years. That’s the only time they’ve been with the same team.

Both coached for the Philadelphia Eagles – 35 years apart.

Both coached for the Buffalo Bills – 18 years apart. Jauron returned to Buffalo a second time and missed LeBeau by three years.

Both coached for the Green Bay Packers – seven years apart.

LeBeau was Bill Cowher’s first defensive backs coach in Pittsburgh. Cowher named him defensive coordinator in 1995 – the Browns’ last season before the Art Modell event. LeBeau returned in 2004 and has been coordinator ever since.

Last year was the first time Jauron competed against his best friend in the Browns-Steelers rivalry. Jauron’s defense held the Steelers to 13 and 14 points in two Browns losses.

Missing the S.O.B. gene: When Sam Wyche became Bengals head coach in 1984, he named LeBeau defensive coordinator, and that’s when LeBeau developed his famed “zone blitz” scheme.

Twenty-eight years later, the Steelers are ranked No. 1 in overall defense despite an off year in team sacks and turnovers.

“There was a time, a long time ago, when the zone blitzes first started, and he’s one of the fathers of it, that it was looked on as football that was not schematically sound,” Browns offensive coordinator Brad Childress said. “It’s funny how it has found a spot. Nobody would call it gimmicky anymore because everybody has some form of zone blitz.

“It is a good scheme. It keeps you on your toes from the standpoint of how you believe a defense should play and the things you expect to happen with a 3-4 front and some different things happen. Guys rushing that may drop a lot of the time, guys dropping that may rush. I just think he’s done a great job of keeping up with the times.”

LeBeau has always coached a 3-4 base alignment. Jauron has always coached a 4-3. LeBeau’s zone blitz is the diametric opposite of Jauron’s conservative approach.

I asked Jauron if he ever was attracted to LeBeau’s defensive style, you know, when they’ve talked shop during the last 30 or so years.

“Believe it or not, we don’t talk a lot of football,” Jauron said. “We’re on opposing teams in the same conference and division. Generally when we talk, we talk about other things.”

These are two of the best defensive coaches of their time. Yet as head coaches, they were not rip-roaring successes.

LeBeau was 12-33 in a three-year stint as coach of the Bengals from 2000 to ’02. Jauron was 35-45 as head coach of the Bears from 1999 to ’03, 1-4 as interim coach of the Lions in 2005, and 24-33 in four seasons as coach of the Buffalo Bills.

They are living examples that some coaches are meant to be tacticians as top assistants, and others are meant to be head coaches.

Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com.

He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 44 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to tgrossi@espncleveland.com

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi

 

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