TAMPA - When the Steelers informed Dick LeBeau that they were going to honor him for his 50 years in the NFL before their Nov. 20 game against the Bengals, he was less than thrilled with the idea.

"I didn't want to do it," said the Steelers' 71-year-old defensive coordinator, who spent 14 years in the league as a player and is in his 36th as a coach. "It was a very critical part of our season. Now, we're all sitting down here in Florida and we're in the Super Bowl. But back then, we had just a one-game lead in our division through almost 90 percent of the dadgum season.

"We were right at crunch time. One game, any game, is terribly important. And I didn't want our guys thinking about anything except the team we had to beat that week. That's why I didn't want to do it. I didn't want to take any of the focus off of the opponent and have our players thinking about how old this guy is that's coaching them."

As it turned out, LeBeau's defense had no trouble staying focused that miserably cold, snowy day. They paid homage to their beloved leader, then went out and squashed the inept Bengals, holding them to 208 yards and 11 first downs in a 27-10 win.

"Twenty minutes before kickoff, in that weather, a lot of guys wouldn't want to be out there standing around," said defensive end Brett Keisel. "But we didn't think twice about it. We would have stood out there for an hour for coach LeBeau. We love the guy dearly."

Nothing says "I love you" like shutting down an opposing offense, and LeBeau's unit has done that with regularity this season. The Steelers finished first in the league in total defense, first against the pass, second against the run, second in sacks, and most importantly, first in points allowed, holding opponents to 13.9 points per game. They have given up more than 14 points just three times in the last 11 games. They will try to make it three in the last 12 Sunday when they tango with the Cardinals and their explosive offense in Super Bowl XLIII.

"They're not the No. 1-rated defense in the NFL for no reason," said Cardinals wide receiver Anquan Boldin. "They present a lot of different problems for different teams with their zone blitzes. I think the main thing for us is just understanding what they are trying to do to us, how they are trying to stop us. Understand when they are blitzing and where they are blitzing from."

The Cardinals deciphered Jim Johnson's blitzes 2 weeks ago and put up 32 points against an Eagles defense that was every bit as hot as the Steelers' going into the NFC Championship Game. Whether they can do the same to LeBeau and his defense will go a long way in deciding who walks out of Raymond James Stadium with the Lombardi Trophy on Sunday.

"[The Steelers] present a whole different set of problems, even schematically with their 3-4 [alignment]," Cardinals offensive coordinator Todd Haley said. "That's difficult, especially when you don't see it all the time, although we're fortunate because our defense plays it some.

"But they're totally different, at least in their base-package stuff. They have some unique players who play their positions very well and make it even more difficult. So it will be a great challenge for us."

The main weapon LeBeau will use Sunday when he tries to wreak havoc on Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner is the same one he's been using since he invented it back in 1984 when he was with the Bengals - the zone blitz.

When most teams blitz, they play man-to-man behind it. With a zone blitz, you play a zone coverage behind the blitzer, often dropping a lineman back into coverage.

"It was a thought process kind of born out of necessity," LeBeau said. "It was basically an outcropping of the run-and-shoot [offense] that was becoming pretty prevalent in the league back then. We were in the same division as Houston, and they were tremendous at it with [Warren] Moon and Co.

"Then the West Coast offense was spreading throughout the league. Those were all quick-rhythm, get-the-ball-out-of-your-hands-and-cut-up-the-defense types of passing games. We were just looking for ways to get pressure without exposing our defensive backs to have to cover the whole field all of the time."

LeBeau's invention has paid big dividends. In his seven seasons as the Steelers' defensive chief, his team never has finished lower than 13th in the league in sacks and has been in the top eight five times. They had an AFC-high 51 this season. The only team in the league with more was the Cowboys (59).

But LeBeau knows that the Cardinals' Warner is as good as anybody in the league at picking up blitzes and countering them. Warner proved that once again against the Eagles.

"You don't play as long as he has in this league without being able to handle the blitz," LeBeau said. "He's comfortable against pressure. He's comfortable against maximum coverage. And he's good. Yet, our feeling is offenses don't play quite as well when there's pressure on [the quarterback]. So we'll be trying to search for a way to do that."

LeBeau wasn't sure he'd be kept on 2 years ago when Mike Tomlin replaced Bill Cowher as the Steelers' head coach. Tomlin was a defensive coach, raised in Monte Kiffin's Tampa-2 system with the Bucs. A 4-3 alignment rather than a 3-4. Not a lot of blitzing. Not exactly a marriage made in heaven. Many observers figured Tomlin would bring someone in with a Tampa-2 background to replace LeBeau.

But to everyone's surprise, he retained him. And the 3-4.

"Sure, I wondered [if he'd be fired]," LeBeau said. "I didn't really know Mike that well. I knew who he was, but we hadn't ever talked. Then he called on the phone and said we needed to get together. He said he was swamped and had a lot he needed to do first, but he wanted to retain me. After that, it was just a matter of getting together with him and getting a feel for what he wanted to do. Because an assistant coach's job is to assist the head coach.

"We found out that, guess what, our philosophies weren't that different. We had a lot of middle ground. We spent a lot of time talking together that first year. People say Mike's a cover-2 guy. But so am I. We've always played a bunch of cover-2. Really, I think it's worked out pretty well."

Nobody's happier than the Steelers' defensive players.

"He's an amazing coach," Keisel said. "I feel incredibly honored and blessed to be able to play for the guy, to be able to learn from the guy, and just be around him."

Said defensive end Aaron Smith: "If he told us to jump off a cliff, I believe we would do it. If he told us to do anything, we would do it because we'd know it's the right thing.

"If he left, I don't know how much longer I would want to play. Because I don't want to play for anybody else. I couldn't imagine this place without him." *