PITTSBURGH - Dick LeBeau was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame last month.
He's going to need to do a Hall-of-Fame-type job this season if the Steelers have plans of returning to the postseason.
LeBeau, the 73-year-old defensive coordinator, will need to have the Steelers' defense playing at its 2008 level, not its 2009, when the new season kicks off Sept. 12 at home against the Atlanta Falcons.
If Thursday's preseason finale against the Carolina Panthers at Heinz Field was any indication, the Steelers' offense could very well struggle to score, especially early in the year. That will put a big onus on the defense, which failed the team during a five-game losing streak last year.
The offense will not have quarterback Ben Roethlis-berger for most likely the first four games he's expected to find out the length of his suspension today. Roethlisberger has looked sharp this preseason, but his performance Thursday (4-of-6 for 39 yards, leading the team to three points) came against the Panthers' second- and third-teamers.
Byron Leftwich, the man who was supposed to start the first four games, put a big question mark into the equation when he limped off with a left knee injury Thursday after playing very little in the last two preseason games.
Leftwich's lack of mobility could be a liability for the Steelers due to an offensive line that may be geared more toward run blocking. Leftwich is no Roethlisberger in eluding rushers and throwing on the run.
Dennis Dixon does have the mobility and threw a touchdown pass in his only series Thursday, but he proved in Sunday's game against the Denver Broncos that he's not quite ready to play against NFL first-team defenses on a regular basis.
Charlie Batch, who quarterbacked the entire second half against Carolina, could give the Steelers a veteran presence while Roethlisberger sits out, but he's 35 and is injury prone.
No matter which quarterback gets the nod in the first four games, the Steelers are going to need a strong running game to try and control the ball and the clock. That, in turn, means the defense will need to be stellar.
LeBeau's defense slipped from the top-ranked unit in their Super Bowl year of 2008 to fifth last year. They gave up 99 more points in 2009 than in 2008 and an average of nearly 70 more yards per game.
The absences of safety Troy Polamalu and defensive end Aaron Smith due to injuries were the biggest reasons why the defense struggled. They're both back and are healthy this year and need to stay that way.
Smith, 34, has missed 17 games over the last three seasons, and Polamalu, 29, has missed 19 starts over the last four years.
The Steelers are expected to use the same starting lineup on defense as they did in Super Bowl XLIII with the exception of Lawrence Timmons taking over for Larry Foote at right inside linebacker.
The positive of that is it gives them consistency, but the negative is the starters are all two years older. In addition to Smith, linebacker James Farrior is 35, nose tackle Casey Hampton is 33, defensive end Brett Keisel and linebacker James Harrison are 32, and cornerback Ike Taylor and safety Ryan Clark are 30.
The Steelers will need a few of their younger defensive players to step up and contribute, especially at cornerback where starters Taylor and Bryant McFadden may be one of the weaker starting duos in the league.
LeBeau is the man who will be pushing all the buttons. He's been so successful in the league as both a player and coach that nothing suggests that he won't be able to get the unit back to its 2008 form.
He just no longer has the luxury of time to prepare.
Buck Frank can be reached at 946-7461 or firstname.lastname@example.org