PITTSBURGH - Even with the Steelers dominating the NFL's defensive rankings, Dick LeBeau calls his unit a "work in progress."
So is the second-story room where we stood inside team headquarters.
What was originally designed as a replica of Steelers founder Art Rooney's office — complete with aged NFL tomes stocked inside tall bookshelves and clear glass windows to represent his open-door management style — changed after the club won Super Bowl XL in February 2006. The late Rooney's desk and chair were moved elsewhere, clearing display space for Pittsburgh's fifth Lombardi Trophy.
More renovations may soon be needed to fit a sixth.
Pittsburgh (9-3) hosts Dallas (8-4) on Sunday in a potential preview of Super Bowl XLIII. And just like when these two franchises battled for NFL supremacy three decades ago, the modern-day Steelers bring a ferocious defense being praised as the second coming of their vaunted Steel Curtain.
Pittsburgh is on pace to become the first team in 17 years to lead the NFL in the three major defensive yardage categories (run, pass and overall). The Steelers also field the league's stingiest scoring defense while allowing 3.88 yards a play. That would stand as the lowest average since the NFL adopted a 16-game schedule in 1978.
"This is a hard-nosed, tough kind of town and our trademark has always been playing great defense," said Jack Ham, a Hall of Fame linebacker on those 1970s Steel Curtain defenses. "If this team wins a championship playing at the same level as right now, those comparisons to us will be well deserved."
Black-and-white photos of Ham and other Steelers greats still hang inside the team's trophy room. Such history isn't lost on LeBeau, who was willing to serve as a tour guide Friday while sharing some of his Steelers memories from 50 years as an NFL player and coach.
LeBeau reflected upon the difficulty in facing Pittsburgh while he was an assistant coach elsewhere, describing the Steel Curtain as "special people who got into the right situation and dominated." The 71-year-old praised the toughness of Joe Greene, the legendary Steelers defensive lineman with whom LeBeau frequently swaps tales about yesteryear.
LeBeau then strode past the four Super Bowl displays from the 1970s toward his "favorite one" — the title captured by the 2005 Steelers. LeBeau's troops were the key to Pittsburgh winning three consecutive road playoff games en route to a 21-10
Super Bowl victory over Seattle.
LeBeau might ultimately be putting his 2008 defense in that same class.
"They have that confidence," LeBeau said.
As well they should, especially after last Sunday's 33-10 dismantling of host New England. The Steelers held their 12th straight opponent to under 300 total yards, an especially impressive feat considering Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel entered with consecutive 400-yard passing games. The Steelers registered five sacks, five turnovers and allowed New England to convert on just one of 13 third-down plays.
The rout showed how far Pittsburgh has come since being picked apart in last December's 34-13 road loss to the Patriots. While still finishing atop the NFL in total defense last season, the Steelers were ousted in the first round of the playoffs. Injuries sidelined key players like defensive end Aaron Smith and safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark down the home stretch. James Harrison also didn't have a complementary pass-rushing outside linebacker like LaMarr Woodley, with whom he has teamed for 25.5 sacks already this season.
The pressure being applied by Harrison and Woodley has allowed LeBeau to use Polamalu less as a blitzer and more in coverage. Polamalu has an NFL-high six interceptions, while Clark's return has helped Pittsburgh allow only one completion of 40-plus yards all season.
The Steelers are even better against the run, surrendering just 3.1 yards a carry. Smith and Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton are particularly adept at tying up offensive linemen while inside linebackers James Farrior and Larry Foote fill rushing lanes.
Orchestrating it all is LeBeau, the innovator of the zone-blitz defensive scheme. One opposing offensive line coach whose team has already lost to the Steelers described that experience as "miserable." He believes the only style of offense that can challenge Pittsburgh is the kind Dallas fields — one with big-play receiving threats and blocking that can give the quarterback a few extra seconds to throw downfield.
"Dick uses a completely different style of 3-4 than other teams," the coach said. "It's all the zone blitzes and the way it's a sideways-pursuing defense, which typically represents great team speed. They run to the ball and are very disciplined. It's more to do with their system, the way it's taught and everyone being accountable. He does a great job."
LeBeau passes the praise to the players, who are especially adept at running his scheme from having worked together for so long. Nine of 11 starters have played exclusively for the Steelers. Eight have at least four seasons of NFL experience.
"We just know how to feed off each other," said Smith, a nine-year Steelers veteran. "Sometimes if we have to do a little something extra, guys know how to make the adjustment and compensate. That's a big advantage compared to most teams.
"This is also the closest team I've ever been on. I think there's a genuine love and appreciation for each other that most teams don't have. The difference with us is we don't care who makes the play. It's much more important for us to do our responsibility. That's the type of attitude that's made this defense so good."
But "so good" will mean so little in Pittsburgh if the Steelers don't win the Super Bowl.
Clark points to the fact that championship units like the Steel Curtain are the ones remembered among the best of all time, not the 1991 Philadelphia Eagles who were the last team to lead the NFL in total defense, run defense and pass defense.
There also aren't any displays inside Steelers headquarters celebrating anything but NFL titles.
"Look at the (2007) Patriots," Harrison said. They went 16-0, won every (playoff) game, got to the Super Bowl and lost it. I bet you they'd give anything to lose a different game besides that last one.
"If you don't win a Super Bowl, all this is for naught."