Getting coached by Mean Joe Greene …

This feature appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on July 30, 2003.

Seeking a mean streak

By Ed Odeven

Don’t be surprised if quarterbacks who have been retired for 20 years still wake up with this recurring nightmare: “Mean Joe” Greene chasing after them and delivering a bone-crushing hit.

They didn’t call him “Mean Joe” for nothing. Greene was a ferocious, relentless, hard-nosed defensive tackle, one of the key components of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ vaunted “Steel Curtain” defense in the 1970s, playing for a team that won four Super Bowls.

A 10-time Pro Bowl player and a Hall of Famer, Greene is entering his 16th season as an NFL coach, his eighth season as the Cardinals’ defensive line coach. Before joining the Big Red, he coached for the Miami Dolphins (1992-95) and the Steelers (’87-’91).

“Right now I’m a coach and I enjoy being a coach,” Greene said after Wednesday’s afternoon practice at NAU’s East Fields.

Over the years Greene has developed a reputation as a skilled teacher, someone who can pass along his wealth of knowledge about playing defensive line. Put it this way: When Greene is discussing the Xs and Os of line play, his players listen.

“Joe was one of the best to ever play his position,” said defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, a former Nebraska Cornhusker. “He played on probably one of the best defenses ever, so he knows what it takes to get the job done.”

Defensive end Dennis Johnson, a second-year pro from Kentucky, said he enjoys receiving instructions from one of the game’s all-time greats.

“You can always learn from somebody else that’s played your position,” Johnson said. He was one of the best. Anything he said, you should put it in your mind and try to go out there and use it on every snap. If you don’t listen, you’re a dummy.”

REVAMPING THE LINE

Give Greene standout playmakers to work with, people say, and they’ll make plays. Consider what Simeon Rice, who now plays for Tampa Bay, accomplished in 1999, when he started all 16 games — the team’s only lineman that year to do so —and finished with a franchise-record 16 1/2 sacks.

After the Cardinals’ surprising playoff run of 1998, people talked a lot about the Cardinals’ fearsome foursome of Mark Smith, Andre Wadsworth, Eric Swann and Rice. Some said it had the potential to be a great, dominating unit for years. Some even dubbed it the “Cactus Curtain.”

Oh, how things have changed.

Last year’s foursome was far from being one the league’s most feared units. Arizona collected 19 sacks in 2001 and only 21 sacks (it allowed 41 sacks) a year ago, hardly an indication that the team’s pass rush sent chills down the spines of opposing offenses.

“As a player you get frustrated when everybody kind of points to your group as being the group that’s letting the defense down,” Vanden Bosch said. “We took that personally. We did some things and we’re working on a lot of technique things. Our No. 1 priority right now is to get off the field on third down. We were a good defense on first and second down last year, but we couldn’t get off the field on third-and-long.”

Arizona’s opponents converted third downs 42.5 percent of the time.

“We’re doing everything possible to get more pressure on the quarterback and get some more sacks,” he added.

FIRST-ROUND IMPACT?

Vanden Bosch and Fred Wakefield are the returning starters at end. Russell Davis and Wendell Bryant, the team’s first-round pick a year ago who missed all of training camp due to a contract holdout, return as the top tackles. And rookie Calvin Pace, the 18th overall pick in the 2003 draft, is a promising player from Wake Forest.

People expect Bryant and Pace to be difference-makers and give the squad a more consistent pass rush.

“Both of those guys are first-round draft choices, and we expect a lot from them,” Greene said. “It remains to be seen what they’ll bring to the table, but we are optimistic that they are going to be leaders and guys that will contribute to a winning effort.”

Dennis Quinn, Kenny King, Talifaia Atoe, Marcus Bell, Johnson, Nate Dwyer, Alton Moore and Barron Tanner are all vying for spots on the roster, too.

What’s the biggest change for the d-line?

“We’ve changed up our scheme a lot this year,” Vanden Bosch said. “Last year we were kind of a read-and-react defense. This year, we’re going to be a lot more aggressive, shooting the gaps, getting upfield and trying to make things happen in the backfield. Last year our philosophy was a little bit more ‘just keep the offensive linemen off our linebackers’. This year, we just want to get up there and hopefully wreak some havoc in the backfield.”

In others words, they want to be recognized as mean, tenacious titans in the trenches. Just like their coach.

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