The Pittsburgh Steelers have been one of the best teams in the AFC for over a decade, but is their dynasty finally crumbling with age?
Last year, the Steelers fielded the NFL's best defense, but also one of the oldest defenses in league history. The offense, too, had faces that have been familiar in Pittsburgh for three, four or five plus years. Fans can call it consistency and stability, but as those players get older, critics will continue ask: "how many years do they have left?"
The big story is at the quarterback position, where Ben Roethlisberger is finally on the wrong side of 30. While quarterbacks have been known to play into their late 30s and even into their 40s, historical studies have shown that Roethlisberger is in his prime right now and could see a steep decline in the coming years.
How much help will Big Ben need in the years when he should be at his best?
Helping all this "age" talk is the public (read: "ceremonial") retirement of four Steelers at a public practice earlier this summer. Longtime Steelers greats Hines Ward and James Farrior also retired following the 2011 season.
Of course, this isn't the first time the Steelers have been called old. Last year, Warren Sapp said on Showtime's Inside the NFL that, "[On] The Pittsburgh Steelers, I have three things: old, slow and it's over. It's just that simple." (Quote via USA Today)
The Steelers would go on to (largely) prove Sapp wrong. The "old, slow and over" Steelers finished 12-4, tying with the Baltimore Ravens for the AFC North lead and getting to the Wildcard round of the playoffs before being ousted by the Tim Tebow-led Denver Broncos.
However, going solely by the average age of the starters, the Steelers are not that old.
In fact, by that measurement, the Steelers were not old last year as well, and they've been getting younger year after year. Younger players like Maurkice Pouncey, Mike Wallace, Rashard Mendenhall and Lawrence Timmons have been added in recent years to offset the veteran (aging) presence in Pittsburgh.
This year will be much of the same, with Antonio Brown replacing Hines Ward and at least one rookie (possibly two) starting on the offensive line.
But if the Steelers aren't getting old on average, maybe it's their best players that are getting up there in age? One look at the team's 2012 Pro Bowl players dispels that notion as well:
- Troy Polamalu (S)—31 years old
- Ben Roethlisberger (QB)—30 years old
- Mike Wallace (WR)—26 years old
- Antonio Brown (KR)—24 years old
- Maurkice Pouncey (C)—23 years old
That is five Pro Bowl players, with an average age of 26.8—right around the average age of the team as a whole. Even if you extend the microscope to include the foundational players that didn't make the Pro Bowl, it's a mixture of players that are (for the most part) have plenty of football left—Heath Miller (29), James Harrison (34), Brett Keisel (33), Lamarr Woodley (27), Lawrence Timmons (26).
The "old" label starts to make sense when you look at that last group. Harrison has been with the team since 2004, and his play is certain to slip sooner rather than later. Kiesel, probably the most underrated member of the unit, has been with the team even longer after being drafted in 2002. Ike Taylor—not included above because his play has slipped in recent years—has been with the team since 2003. At 32, his best football is long behind him.
So, perhaps the question is not "are the Steelers old?" but rather, "have the Steelers brought in enough youth to replace their aging players?
Brown made the Pro Bowl as a kick returner last year, and the team is expecting him to fill the void at receiver in the Post-Hines Ward era. He only played 625 snaps last year (via Pro Football Focus, paid link), but received 120 targets in those snaps. Of those targets, Brown caught 69 passes for a catch percentage of 57.5. He'll need to play more snaps and catch more targets before he makes a bigger impact on offense.
Ziggy Hood, a first round pick in 2009, hasn't been good as a pro. Sure, the stories this preseason have been how good Hood as looked and how he's the "clear cut" starter. The proof needs to be on the field, however, and Hood was the worst 3-4 defensive end last year, according to Pro Football Focus. Hood's biggest problem is that he's not Aaron Smith and hasn't generated near the pass rush that the former Steeler great once did.
Perhaps the Steelers' biggest question in terms of age is at cornerback after William Gay (a relative pup at 27 and the Steelers' best corner last year) left for Arizona. Gay will give way to the very average Keenan Lewis.
Cortez Allen, drafted in the fourth round last year, looks like a long term impact player somewhere in the defensive backfield.
How well Lewis plays and how quickly the Steelers realize Taylor isn't the player he once was will largely determine how the next few years go in Pittsburgh.
How Will the Pittsburgh Steelers Finish in the AFC North in 2012?
The Steelers, as a team, are clearly getting younger, but the players the Steelers count on most are getting older. Their replacements may pan out, but few of them have shown they can consistently be "the guy" their respective predecessors were.
As Keisel, Harrison and Taylor exit, the team will need to replace a lot of quality talent. Then, they'll need to (almost immediately) do so again with Polamalu, Miller and eventually Roethlisberger.
Most of that will need to happen in the next two-three years, with Roethlisberger's NFL exit likely coming in the next three-five. Can the Steelers replace 16 Pro Bowl seasons in the same way they once gathered them?
The answer to the question, "are the Steelers over the hill?"—like most questions in the NFL—needs to be answered on the field. This team's stars certainly aren't getting any younger and have left some pretty big shoes to fill.
So while fans may be tired of it, the Steelers' age remains the biggest preseason storyline around this team and likely will be for the next few years.
Michael Schottey is the NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff alongside other great writers at "The Go Route."