I always liked those word association games when a topic is spoken then the guesser spends the next few seconds linking words to the aforementioned theme.
So let’s play shall we? What are the first words that come to mind when I mention the Pittsburgh Steelers?
'70s dynasty? “Mean Joe” Greene? Quiver and Quake? The Steel Curtain? The Bus?
If you guessed any of those I wouldn’t say you’re wrong. If you guessed something along the lines pertaining to defense first then you probably stand in line with a wide host of others.
The truth is, the Steelers have always been known to field some strong defensive units. From their Hall of Fame stocked attack squads of the '70s to their league renowned 3-4 fronts of the past 20 years that half the league now emulates.
But the times they are a changing in the Steel City. When Pittsburgh nabbed Ben Roethlisberger with the 11th pick in the 2004 draft, the Steelers saw a chance to restock the quarterback position with the franchise signal caller the team had been lacking since Terry Bradshaw retired in 1983.
Five years later, when Roethlisberger walked off the field at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa last February, he left the field a two-time Super Bowl Champion at the envious age of 26. As he heads into his sixth season this coming fall, Roethlisberger appears primed to turn the offense into the new theme associated with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Perfect timing for the Steelers. Consistent is an understatement for a team that has finished the regular season as the top ranked defensive unit four times since 2000.
Between the years they weren’t racking up number one listings, they were still churning out top ten finishes with their last non top ten finish occurring in 99 when they ended the year as the 11th best defensive squad.
All of those years of playing stout defense appear to be catching up to a front seven that will start five defenders of at least age 31 and over this September.
Traditionally, Pittsburgh has had relative ease sewing new and younger defenders into their 3-4 design. That task has proven increasingly difficult over the last few seasons as more teams have made the transition to the three man odd front, drying up a talent pool in which the Steelers used to solitarily fish in.
While this isn't to suggest the mighty Steelers defense will just fall off the map, but in a notoriously complicated system for newcomers to learn, Evander “Ziggy” Hood, the Steelers 2009 first round pick, is the only promising source of youth waiting in the wings along the defensive line.
And even that may be a stretch as defensive line coach John Mitchell assured the public that Hood was "light years away" from contributing when asked about the chances of the rookie commandeering a starting gig in the near future.
With the possibility of long tenured defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau retiring in the coming seasons and potentially taking his Chinese arithmetic-like schemes with him should he depart, the door would then swing open for the prospect of head coach Mike Tomlin to install his preferred 4-3 Tampa Two defensive system.
With uncertainties abounding, Pittsburgh's defense is coming up on the unfamiliar territory of a unit in flux.
Enter Roethlisberger, the god-like figure whom Steelers fans praise and the young man just entering his prime who may have to carry the team for a few years while Tomlin resharpens the claws on his attack dogs.
The good news is, Big Ben won't be alone in his potential task. Last year's Super Bowl MVP wideout, Santonio Holmes, is only 25.
The best tight end you've never heard of, two-time Super Bowl Champion Heath Miller, is only 26 and last year’s draft provided two playmakers in running back Rashard Mendenhall and receiver Limas Sweed that are expected to take the Steelers offense to new heights.
Although the two newcomers struggled mightily in their first years in western Pennsylvania, the club places full belief in their promise and the Steelers have been known to strike gold with their early draft picks.
If there’s some bad news, it would have to rest with the men assigned the task of protecting Roethlisberger and opening holes for the team’s traditionally effective run game.
Critics and fans alike have hammered down on an offensive line that has allowed their starting quarterback to be sacked 139 times in just the last three seasons.
There are those who point to the line and there are others who point to Roethlisberger’s penchant for holding the ball a little too long in search of the big play that typically concludes with the signal caller peeling his face out the turf.
Whatever the reason, Pittsburgh needs to ensure that their franchise quarterback remains upright long enough to distribute the ball amongst a talented group of weapons.
The offensive line’s performance over the last half of 2008 was encouraging as the unit blocked long enough for Big Ben to conjure up some late game magic against a few of the best front sevens in the league.
Along with Big Ben and his group of skill guys, his front five is pretty young as well.
Outside of starting center Justin Hartwig, the rest of the starters’ average age is only 25.5 and to their credit, the unit ended the year with four new starters compared to the group that ended the 2007-2008 season.
If the offense can continue to grow and mature, it’s not too far fetched to expect them to carry the team while the defense reloads.
Steeler fans may have gotten a glimpse of the future in their last game when the offense had to string together a historic last minute touchdown drive after their defense uncharacteristically collapsed late in the Super Bowl against the Cardinals.
If the last game was any inclination, Roethlisberger and the offense are ready for a starring role as the team’s strength.
It might take some getting used to for life long black and gold fans. You just don't go from hanging your hat on three yards and a cloud of dust to three step drop backs.
But with Big Ben emerging as the franchise quarterback the Steelers and their fans have long been waiting for and the defense getting a little long in the tooth at some key spots, a little role reversal might be just what the team needed.