On the Steelers: LeBeau, Bartkowski put friendship aside

Saturday, November 06, 2010
By Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Gene J. Puskar/Associated

Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeauWhen he was a Hall of Fame cornerback with the Detroit Lions, Dick LeBeau had at least one of his career 62 interceptions against Zeke Bratkowski, the backup to quarterback Bart Starr with the Green Bay Packers.

After he retired as a player, LeBeau and Bratkowski were on the same coaching staff in Green Bay from 1976 to '79 when Starr was the head coach. During that time, LeBeau became close friends with Bratkowski and got to know Bratkowski's son, Bob, who was in college.

Four decades later, LeBeau and the young Bratkowski will re-acquaint themselves Monday night at Paul Brown Stadium, a curious match-up of strategy and will between friends who have met in this manner 13 previous times since 2001. Or since LeBeau hired Bob Bratkowski as the Cincinnati Bengals' offensive coordinator.

"We know each other pretty well," said LeBeau, the leader of a Steelers defense that leads the National Football League in points allowed (102), rushing defense (58.9 yards per game) and takeaways (19).

"I have a lot of respect for his coaching ability. He's done a great job there. His offenses, the last five or six years, have been near the top of the league, and they're back up there again. So, they're quite capable."

It was LeBeau, the Bengals' coach from 2000 to '02, who brought Bratkowski to Cincinnati from the Steelers, where he was the wide-receivers coach.

And, in his first season with the Bengals, it was Bratkowski who first exposed a flaw in the Steelers' defense and developed a template for how to beat them. The Steelers were 13-3 that season and allowing just 74 yards rushing per game, so Bratkowski had his quarterback, Jon Kitna, attempt 68 passes and throw for 411 yards in a 26-23 overtime victory.

The following year, the Steelers lost their first two games of the season because teams began copying Bratkowski's successful blueprint. The New England Patriots threw on the first 21 plays of the game and Tom Brady finished with 43 attempts and 294 yards passing in a 30-14 victory in the season opener. And Rich Gannon of the Oakland Raiders attempted 64 passes and threw for 403 yards in a 30-17 victory in Week 2.

"Coach [Bill] Cowher only lost maybe one or two games when he was leading in the fourth quarter, and that was one of them," LeBeau said, recalling the game in which the Bengals rallied from a 23-13 fourth-quarter deficit.

LeBeau is on the opposite side now, in his second stint as the Steelers' defensive coordinator, and Bratkowski has not had as much success.

To be sure, the Bengals scored 38 points in a 2005 game at Heinz Field, the most points the Steelers have allowed at home in the seven years since LeBeau returned as coordinator. The following year, quarterback Carson Palmer threw four touchdown passes against a Steelers defense that had allowed only 15 touchdown passes in their Super Bowl season in 2005.

And, in 2009, the Bengals swept the season series by not committing a turnover against the Steelers, who lead the NFL in takeaways this year.

But those have been Bratkowski's only successes against his dad's good friend. In 13 games against LeBeau, counting playoffs, he is 4-9.

"Bobby's normal pattern is to change up week to week," LeBeau said. "He'll have a concept ready for us, whether that's running with a lot of tight ends or throwing the ball with a bunch of wide receivers. We'll have to wait to see what that is."

And about that friendship?

"There's an old saying that war and politics make strange bedfellows," LeBeau said. "Well, so does football."

An unappealing proposition
James Harrison's appeal hearing for his $75,000 fine will be Tuesday in New York, but Harrison and his agent aren't holding out much hope his fine for an illegal hit on Browns receiver Mohamed Massaquoi will be reduced.

"We'll lose that hearing," said Bill Parise, Harrison's agent. "[But] we're going to go through the motions. I don't have any plans on winning, but we feel like we have a strong case."

Harrison has the support of the NFL Players Association and the Steelers. In his meeting this past Tuesday with commissioner Roger Goodell, Harrison was accompanied by Kevin Colbert, the team's director of football operations.

Despite that, Parise does not think his client will get a reduction in his fine, especially now that he was fined another $20,000 for his hit on New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees.

Injury updates
Defensive end Brett Keisel (hamstring), who missed the past two games, will return and start against the Bengals. Offensive right tackle Flozell Adams, who sustained a low-ankle sprain against the Saints, also will start.

Gerry Dulac can be reached at gdulac@post-gazette.com.

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