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Steelers defense back near top after slow start behind longtime coordinator Dick LeBeau

There's a look Dick LeBeau gets on his face when the Hall-of-Fame defensive coordinator sees a breakdown on film that Pittsburgh Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton knows all too well.

It's not quite anger. Or frustration for that matter.

Nope, it's way worse than that.

"It's like when a dad gets disappointed with his kids," Hampton said. "He's not mad. He just knows what we're capable of doing."

And far too often during Pittsburgh's sluggish start, the kids were letting the old man down.

The Steelers (4-3) squandered second-half leads in all three of their losses, letting the likes Tennessee and Oakland — not exactly the 2007 New England Patriots — rally to victory. The front seven couldn't generate any pressure. The secondary couldn't cover anybody and critics woofed the unit featuring seven starters in their 30s was past its prime, its 75-year-old architect included.

"It's just like somebody talking about your pops," nose tackle Steve McLendon said. "So you just want to go out there and show them that pops is a great guy and I guess that's what we've been doing."

In two short weeks, a defense that struggled to get off the field has returned to its typically efficient self. Pittsburgh held Cincinnati to 185 total yards then drummed the Redskins and superstar-in-training Robert Griffin III in a surprisingly easy 27-12 win last Sunday.

Heading into this weekend's visit to the defending Super Bowl-champion New York Giants (6-2), the Steelers are second in the NFL in yards allowed and first against the pass.

What changed? Not LeBeau. Asked if he's suddenly gotten smarter since a 26-23 loss to Tennessee on Nov. 12 put the Steelers perilously close to falling off the pace in the cluttered AFC, the eternally self-deprecating coach just laughs.

"It's definitely not that," he said.

It's not Troy Polamalu either.

The backbone of the NFL's best defense over the last decade has been limited to just two games due to right calf injury. Linebacker James Harrison didn't play the first month while recovering from knee surgery and though he's been solid since his return, he's managed all of one sack.

Then again, Harrison is hardly alone. The Steelers have gotten to the quarterback just 12 times this season and have created only seven turnovers.

LeBeau stresses his players need to create more "splash" plays to help out the offense, but the Steelers have gotten by without them simply by eliminating mistakes and doing the little things LeBeau preaches, tackling and playing fast being chief among them.

The Redskins dropped 10 passes in the rain last week, some of them due to sloppy execution, others due to the approaching footsteps of a Pittsburgh defensive back.

It's what the Steelers have always done under LeBeau, who spent 14 years patrolling the secondary with the Detroit Lions, developing a reputation as one of the most physical and cerebral players in the game.

Forty years after retiring, he's still preaching the virtue of doing things the right way.

To LeBeau, that means being a teacher instead of a taskmaster. It's why he doesn't lose his temper when things go wrong, unless you count getting angry at yourself.

"I learned better when people didn't holler at me," LeBeau said.

LeBeau gets greater mileage out of a quiet pep talk and a quick pointer than a paint-peeling tirade.

"He's a Hall of Famer, coach and player," linebacker Larry Foote said. "When he talks to you and he pats you on your back, it does a lot more coming from him and his pedigree than a normal coach would."

And there is little normal about LeBeau. Two generations removed from the last time he suited up in a game, he remains vibrant. He's remarkably fit and insists it's the players that keep him young. He could easily pass for someone 15 years his junior.

If he's gotten predictable, as opponents suggested earlier this season, it's for pretty good reason. The Steelers have finished with the NFL's No. 1 defense four times since LeBeau returned for his second stint as the team's defensive coordinator in 2004 and never finished outside the top 10.

"We're not scared to let you know what we're doing," safety Ryan Clark said. "But when we execute it, you can't move the ball. When we execute it, it's hard to score. And I think that's what's happening."

Having an offense that monopolizes the ball helps too. The Steelers are second in the NFL in time of possession, meaning the defense is only on the field about 25 minutes a game.

Defensive end Brett Keisel joked he's his best when he's sitting on the bench watching quarterback Ben Roethlisberger go to work, but Keisel and company are also doing a pretty good job of making their trips between the lines brief outings.

The Redskins looked helpless at times trying to figure things out, which Keisel attributes to a prototypical LeBeau approach. On film, LeBeau noticed opponents became so worried about chasing Griffin around they got away from what they do best.

So rather than trick up the defense, LeBeau — in a way — dumbed it down. While adding a wrinkle here or there, the Steelers mostly stayed in their base 3-4 or nickel packages and focused on execution, not exotic coverages.

"Coach LeBeau just stays the course," Clark said. "It's about effort. It's about doing things a certain way. When you get that right, it doesn't matter what you call it."

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NOTES: RBs Jonathan Dwyer (strained right quad) and Rashard Mendenhall (strained right Achilles) were limited in practice on Thursday. Dwyer expects to play on Sunday while Mendenhall — who has missed the last two weeks — is questionable ... Safety Ryan Clark practiced for the second straight and will play against the Giants. Clark left the Washington game in the third quarter with a concussion.

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Follow Will Graves at www.twitter.com/WillGravesAP

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