FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. —Ask Atlanta head coach Mike Smith about Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and he'll speak in awe of the man, the player and the coach.
He not only admires what the 52-year NFL veteran accomplished on the field, but he also admires how the coach keeps himself looking young.
"I guess he's 71 years old, but looks like he's about 55," Smith said Wednesday. "…He's a heck of a football coach. He always has those guys prepared to do what they have to."
A recent inductee into the Pro Foootball Hall of Fame on the merits of his 14-year career as a cornerback, in the modern era of NFL football, LeBeau is best known for his innovative defenses, particularly a blitz-happy defensive package that can befuddle opposing quarterbacks.
"He's one of the innovators of the zone blitz," Smith said. "Their blitzing packages are very unique in terms of what they try to do. They're one of the top teams in terms of creating pressure on a quarterback with that 3-4 defense. He's seen about everything there is."
The mastermind of a defense that consistently ranks among the league leaders, LeBeau's unit features two blitzing linebackers in James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, whose 23.5 combined sacks last season accounted for two of the top four sack totals by a Steelers duo in franchise history.
When LeBeau turns loose Woodley and Harrison, he has a safety patrolling the center of the field ready to capitalize on every mistake a quarterback makes. Troy Polamalu seems to be at the right place at the right time more often than offenses prefer.
Known to the Falcons as just "No. 43," Polamalu is a player they know they will have to watch carefully under LeBeau's scheme.
"No. 43, you never know where he's going to be," center Todd McClure said of the playmaking safety. "You've got to account for him. He's going to be all over the field. We've got to make sure we get him blocked up."
For an offense that prides itself on potentially being explosive, the Falcons will have their work cut out for them. LeBeau has made a living shutting down some of the league's best. During the Super Bowl championship run of the 2005 season, the Steelers defense stopped four of the NFL's top five offenses in the AFC playoffs and limited the Seattle Seahawks to 10 points in the Super Bowl.
Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan has done his share of studying the coordinator and believes the seemingly never-ending looks the defense presents is what makes them so challenging.
"I think one of the reasons Dick LeBeau has been so successful is his ability to change it up week to week and within a game," Ryan said. "So with that said, you have to prepare for a bunch of different looks."
Tight end Tony Gonzalez, a veteran of the AFC during his tenure with the Kansas City Chiefs, has seen LeBeau enough to know he's one of the best and deserving of the accolades. He describes the Steelers' talent on defense as tailor-made for the manic 3-4 defense in the Steel City.
"He's got the players in the right system that is good for their talents," Gonzalez said. "You have to know (who to block). If you pick somebody you've got to stay with him, especially in the passing game with all the blitz packages that they do. They're walking around, coming from all different angles."
The tight end said Atlanta's offense draws a tough task to open the season and their "A" game will be required. All 11 players on Pittsburgh's defense must be accounted for at all times, according to Gonzalez, or the exotic blitzes will exploit any offensive player confused about what's happening in front of him.
Under Smith, a good defensive coordinator in his right during his days in Jacksonville, the Falcons are developing a reputation for playing a tough brand of football, predicated on running the football and remaining physical on both sides of the ball. It's a style that mirrors a tradition in Pittsburgh.
Smith is looking forward to the opportunity to beat the Steelers at their own game and perhaps outsmart a defensive wizard.
"I think it's going to be a big challenge," Smith said. "I think it's going to be a fun game. Two teams that like to play physical football."