With all the talk about Steelers defenders Troy Polamalu and James Harrison, a casual observer might begin to believe that these two defensive stalwarts roam the football field unaided, stopping opposing defenses with their mere presence.
Harrison and Polamalu deserve every accolade that comes their way; both are Pro Bowl caliber, smart, instinctive players, and both hold sway as leaders in the locker room.
But they don't do it alone.
There are nine other positions on the defensive side of the ball—nine positions filled by teammates who make a difference on every play. And it's a symbiotic relationship: Not only does the supporting cast allow them to elevate their game, but the fact that they are as good as they are improves the play of the rest of the team.
It takes a total team effort for a defense to consistently rank as one of the toughest in the league. Here, then, are some other names that you may not know as well, but who most assuredly deserve recognition as impact players with the "new" Steel Curtain.
Ryan Clark, Free Safety
Years Pro: 7 With Steelers: 3
Clark became a household name of sorts following the 2008 AFC Championship game, when he laid a vicious, but perfectly legal, hit on Baltimore's Willis McGahee that knocked both players out cold and out of the game.
The impact, pardon the pun, on the game was immediate and palpable: Baltimore played the remaining minutes of the championship on auto-pilot, and even the post-game celebrations were somewhat subdued.
In his two years there, Clark racked up 138 tackles and three interceptions before being traded to the Steelers, who acquired him to replace departing safety Chris Hope.
During the 2006 campaign, Clark quietly went about cleaning up the side of the field Polamalu wasn't terrorizing, garnering 72 tackles and pulling in an interception in the 13 games he played.
In 2008, Clark fared even better: 87 tackles, a pick, and a forced fumble courtesy of the unconscious McGahee. He was everywhere that Polamalu wasn't; try to throw away from Troy, and Clark was ready and waiting.
What many people may not realize is that the simple act of Clark even being on the football field is nothing short of a miracle; in 2007 he underwent life-saving surgery to have a failed spleen and gall bladder removed, and his condition following surgery was not conducive to a successful return to the strain of playing in the NFL.
But return he did, and his play since has been spectacular.
Quick, agile, and obviously hard-hitting, Clark has made more than one player wish they hadn't crossed his path.
James Farrior, Inside Linebacker
Years Pro: 12 With Steelers: 7
Farrior spent five mostly injury-plagued seasons with the New York Jets before being acquired by the Steelers in 2002. In four of his seven seasons with Pittsburgh he has eclipsed 100 tackles; he has also put the opposing quarterback down 19 times, and has seven interceptions.
While Farrior has twice been selected to the Pro Bowl—both times as a Steeler—his play has oftentimes been overshadowed by the play, and personalities, of teammates such as Joey Porter, Jason Gildon, and Harrison.
What he contributes to the defense is undeniable; he is a spectacular run-stopper who also has the ability to drop back and harass receivers on short routes over the middle. If he doesn't get the pick, he gets the hit.
LaMarr Woodley, Outside Linebacker
Years Pro: 2 With Steelers: 2
How Woodley didn't make the Pro Bowl in 2009 is somewhat of a mystery; he was in hot pursuit of teammate James Harrison all year. Watching Woodley and Harrison play this year conjured up memories of the “Quiver and Quake” tandem of Kevin Greene and Greg Lloyd, who in 1994 recorded a combined 24 sacks.
If Lloyd and Greene weren’t planting the quarterback like a tulip, they were chasing him around. In 2008, Woodley and Harrison were no different. In fact, they were a bit better.
Woodley finished 2008 with 11.5 sacks, second on the team to Harrison's 16—27.5 sacks combined, almost four better than Lloyd and Greene. He also had 41 tackles, one interception, two forced fumbles, and a defensive touchdown.
His postseason play has been at another level—12 tackles and four sacks this year, and the only player in NFL history to record more than one sack in three consecutive postseason games.
If Harrison and Woodley both manage to get to the quarterback, watch out. Someone is gonna get tackled in the backfield. Just as likely is that one of them will force a fumble that the other one will recovere.
Casey Hampton, Nose Tackle
Years Pro: 8 With Steelers: 8
Hampton is listed at 6'1" and 325 pounds, but only because the scale begins to go hectic at that weight. If he's a pound under 340, I'll eat my hat.
Casey's numbers may not be as big as he is, but the position he plays doesn't lend itself to huge numbers. In overall effect, though, Hampton does exactly what a nose tackle in a 3-4 defense is supposed to do: occupy the attention of two, sometimes three, offensive linemen so the linebackers can swoop in and do the glamour work.
The play of the linebackers behind him is evidence enough that he does it better than just about anyone; in his eight years with Pittsburgh the linebacker corps has been at or near the top of the league in stops.
Casey doesn't just take on the center and guards though; he gets into the action sometimes himself, grabbing the ball carrier a total of 256 times during his career in Pittsburgh.
Running inside against Hampton is a bad idea; if he's not involved with a tackle, it's usually because the running back took the extra time to run an extra five yards to get around him.
DeShea Townsend, Nickel Back/Cornerback
Years Pro: 11 With Steelers: 11
Townsend began his pro career in 1998 with the unfortunate task of having to live up to the previous No. 26, former Steelers great Rod Woodson.
While his numbers haven't reached Woodson's level, his contributions in the backfield have been solid. He has managed two or more interceptions every year since 2001, even after being moved from the starting position to playing in the nickel package for a good part of the 2008 season.
His play has been so good, in fact, that he regained the starting spot from Bryant McFadden.
Townsend is also known for his speed as an outside rusher, and in his career he has garnered 322 tackles, 15.5 sacks, and 10 interceptions.
And not every player in the NFL is worthy of a Chris Berman nickname: Townsend received this honor after returning an interception for a game-winning touchdown against Dallas in 2008.
Larry Foote, Inside Linebacker
Years Pro: 7 With Steelers: 7
To accuse Larry Foote of cleaning up the messes James Farrior can't get to would be overlooking his actual body of work; he may be the yin to Farrior's yang, but he's a big contributor in his own right.
His 432 career tackles are only a little more than half of Farrior's 796 with the Steelers, but his effort was hampered in 2003 when he spent the majority of the season on special teams.
His other numbers are another story. With 14.5 sacks, seven forced fumbles and 16 passes defended in his time with Pittsburgh, he has demonstrated that he has the ability to get in there and get the job done.
He's not flashy, he's not spectacular, and he hasn't made the Pro Bowl. But if Farrior needs a hand, he's there.
And he's not too bad on his own, either.
Lawrence Timmons, Inside Linebacker
Years Pro: 2 With Steelers: 2
Call him Larry, Jr. Playing behind Larry Foote, Timmons is another young player who, like fellow sophomore LaMarr Woodley, will see his recognition grow in the years to come if his early play is any indication.
The 2008 season saw him record 65 tackles, five sacks, a forced fumble, and an interception that he returned for 89 yards.
All that, and he isn't starting yet.
He has good speed, his pursuit is phenomenal for a player of his age and experience, and his 6'1", 234-pound frame will make him a force to be reckoned with for years to come. The more he learns, the more dangerous he will be.
Ike Taylor, Cornerback
Years Pro: 6 With Steelers: 6
Taylor is the epitome of the hard-working "other guy". He doesn't put up big numbers, he isn't a weekly highlight film candidate, but when the Steelers need a big play on defense, he is often in the spotlight.
As a great cover corner, Taylor usually draws the assignment of man coverage on the opposing offense's top receiver. He has top notch speed, and at 6'2" he can get in the air to compete with just about anyone.
When it comes to stepping up in the big games, Taylor is no slouch. Against the Broncos in the 2006 playoffs, Ike pulled in a key interception that led to the Steelers taking a 24-3 lead and eventual victory over Denver.
In Super Bowl XL, Taylor's goal-line interception put a dagger in the heart of the Seattle Seahawks, and led to the Steelers' record-tying fifth Super Bowl victory.
It's been more of the same from Taylor in 2008: 65 tackles, 50 of them unaided, and he only gave up two touchdowns in coverage this year despite facing off against top receivers like Terrell Owens, Andre Johnson, and Reggie Wayne.
We Like Ike.
Aaron Smith, Defensive End
Years Pro: 10 With Steelers: 10
Smith is a taller, leaner version of NT Casey Hampton. Standing 6'4" and weighing in at 298 pounds, no one man can cover him. He has incredible reach and strength, and often makes tackles while he is still engaged with an offensive lineman.
He's a decent pass rusher as well; Smith garnered 5.5 sacks on the year, and harassed opposing quarterbacks all year long. Many a pass went high or wide because the quarterback had to throw over or around him.
He may be getting long in the tooth, but he is definitely not getting short on effort. With a new five-year contract in the books, he is set to help keep the Steelers in contention well into the next decade.
Brett Keisel, Defensive End
Years Pro: 7 With Steelers: 7
The bookend on the right side of the line, Keisel is a great complement to Smith on the left. An inch taller than Smith and only seven pounds lighter, Keisel's presence and occupation of the offensive tackle is what gets James Harrison around the outside and to the quarterback.
When it comes to run defense, he's a big enough force to turn the running back either straight towards the sideline, or back inside to where the monsters lurk.
Keisel toils on the front line of the 3-4 defense, but he doesn't let that take him out of the play. In fact, he works every down to be part of the action, and oftentimes finds himself right in the thick of things whether he gets to the ball carrier or not.
One thing that has to be said about this Steelers defense is that they play as a single entity; they are all selfless players who consider each other family instead of teammates.
If you talk to any of them, you are just as likely to hear them praise the other members of the defense as talk about themselves. They are the embodiment of a cohesive unit, each one giving his all to help the others succeed.
Football is a team sport: While one or two players can make a big difference, none of them can do it alone. This is emphasized from the very beginning of a football player's career: visit any recreation league field in the fall and you will hear "teamwork" and "effort" emphasised more often that wins and losses.
There are no superstars at that level; there are only groups of young boys learning what it means—and how rewarding it can be—to work together.
These players, along with the rest of the Steelers roster, know it, understand it, and play the game that way.
It's gotten them to the Super Bowl twice in this decade; what other proof do you need?
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