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Returning to form is a strange goal for a unit that still ranked atop the NFL in yards surrendered, which is the statistic used to rank defenses. Indeed, the Steelers were the No. 1 defense in football last season, but any fan with two eyes and some attention to detail knows they took a step backward.
Turnovers were at a premium, often the difference of a fraction of an inch or a split second. How many times did Troy Polamalu, who had a wonderful campaign in spite of nay-sayers' best efforts to state otherwise, come ever so close to completely destroying the best laid plans of opposing offenses, particularly in the backfield?
The defense had trouble pressuring opposing passers. This was partly due to injuries, particularly those sustained by James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley. Woodley's absence was always harshly felt. Yet, there was an even bigger reason that sacks were hard to come by...
The team was not its normal self upfront, surprisingly handled by a number of offensive lines and giving up 100-yard rushers with more frequency and...for the first time in a long while... four yards per carry!
Likewise, the front four couldn't manage into the backfield on their own, particularly on passing downs, and they struggled to open up the customary lanes for linebackers to harass backfields—a Dick LeBeau defensive staple.
A great deal of the dropoff along the defensive front centered around the keystone position of the 3-4 defense, nose tackle.
Casey Hampton struggled more than in any previous season, and Steve McClendon, though he filled in admirably, certainly wasn't able to provide the same type of consistent dominance Steelers fans have grown accustomed to from their center on the defense.
A true key to a return to form will again center around nose tackle, where questions include:
—Will Casey Hampton be healthy enough to play...and, if so, can he do so successfully?
—If not, will Steve McClendon grow from last year if he indeed starts?
—Can potential draft steal Alameda Ta'amu steal some reps or- to the surprised delight of all- make an immediate impact in a starting role?
Outside of nose tackle, the other position of change on the defense will be opposite Ike Taylor at corner. Keenan Lewis is the current favorite to line up on the other side, and fans hope his superior man coverage skills and heightened physical presence make him a more consistent defensive back than William Gay.
While those key factors have the Steel City crossing its fingers, the defense should perform well in all other phases, provided one thing goes well: HEALTH.
A healthy Woodley and Harrison will assist in the unit returning to the top of the league in sacks and pressures.
The league's best defender, in my opinion, returns—Troy Polamalu!
The loss of Farrior hurts, but his best days were behind him. The introduction of Larry Foote as a full-time starter, and Sean Spence on select downs will equate to better pass coverage at the linebacker position, which will also translate to more flexibility in the formations and blitz packages the team is able to effectively utilize.
Particularly, Spence is a great option for sub packages, which should result in less strain upfront, allowing the unit to achieve better pressure from more exotic playcalling.
Lawrence Timmons will see a better balance of coverage and rush duties, and a return to 2010 form for the potential Pro Bowl linebacker is expected by the higher percentage of Steelers fans.
Yada. Yada. Yada. The basic news is, expect the Steelers defense to do what it has always done.