Steelers Final Report Card/2009: For Defense, Glass Was One-Quarter Empty

Paul LadewskiCorrespondent IIJanuary 11, 2010

PITTSBURGH - MAY 01:  Head coach Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers watches practice alongside defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau during rookie training camp at the Pittsburgh Steelers Practice Facility on May 1, 2009 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
Joe Sargent/Getty Images

While not as super as the season before, the Steelers defense was more than respectable, according to the NFL statistics. It ranked second in sacks (47.0), fifth in total yards allowed (305.3 per game), and 12th in points allowed (20.2) in the league.  

Now for the other 25 percent of the story . . .

Under the direction of coordinator Dick LeBeau, the unit had a personality that only Sybil could love—mostly effective in the first three quarters and suddenly inept in the final one. The team lost five games after they blew leads in the fourth period, meltdowns for which the defense was largely to blame. Win any one of those games and the Steelers are in the playoffs with a 10-6 record.

Then again, maybe the late fades should have come as no surprise. This was the same nucleus that frittered away a lead in the Super Bowl only months earlier, remember?

The defense started no fewer than a half-dozen players who were 30 or older.  Especially on third downs, opponents targeted linebacker James Farrior, cornerback William Gay, and nickel back Deshea Townsend for positive results. The unit was a distant 28th in third-down success rate (58 percent).

To be sure, the extended absences of safety Troy Polamalu and end Aaron Smith were no small factors in the decline. But even when they were available, the unit showed weaknesses that weren’t nearly as apparent the season before.

Give the defense a B in the first three quarters, a D in the fourth quarter, and a C+ overall.



Defense regulars


LE Travis Kirschke

Weekly grades: C/B/C/C/B/B/B/DNP/DNP/DNP/B/DNP/F/B/B/F

Final grade: C

Comment: Did as well as could be expected as emergency fill-in late in season. Totaled 16 tackles, one sack. Wore down late in season. How much does the 35-year-old have left in his tank?


NT Casey Hampton

Weekly grades: B/B/B/C/B/A/C/A/B/A/D/B/D/A/C/B

Final grade: B-

Comment: Performed consistently as anchor of front line. Set career high in sacks (2.5). At 32, free agent poses difficult question for management. Will he be as motivated with long-term deal in place? Proceed with caution.


RE Brett Keisel

Weekly grades: A/B/C/B/B/A/A/A/B/B/C/B/D/D/C/DNP

Final grade: B-

Comment: Played at reasonably high level in first half of season. Age and injuries took tolls in second half. Sack total (3.0) was highest in three years. Another 30-something whose best days are behind him.


LOLB LaMarr Woodley

Weekly grades: D/D/D/D/C/B/B/B/B/A/A/A/A/B/A/A

Final grade: B-

Comment: Most dominant player of group in second half. Lead team with 13.5 sacks. Had at least one take-down in each of final eight games. Was a virtual no-show in first four games. Appeared to be slow, out of shape at start of season.


LILB James Farrior

Weekly grades: B/A/C/B/C/A/A/B/B/C/B/C/F/F/B/C

Final grade: C+

Comment: Displayed noticeable slippage in 13th season. Had 19 fewer tackles (68) than season before. Considerable liability in pass coverage. Should be two-down player, but coaches are loyal to veteran types.


LILB Keyaron Fox

Final grade: A/A/C/C/B/D/A/A/F/C/B/C/F/D/C/B

Final grade: C

Comment: Quality reserve. Had 31 tackles, highest total in three seasons with team. Started three games. Flashed big-play potential. At 28, he deserves chance for expanded role.


RILB Lawrence Timmons

Weekly grades: DNP/B/B/D/B/A/B/DNP/B/A/A/B/B/D/D/B

Final grade: B-

Comment: Established career highs in tackles (56), sacks (seven), passes defended (five), and forced fumbles (four). Lack of experience showed at times. More consistent than previous season. Still has growth potential.


ROLB James Harrison

Weekly grades: A/B/A/A/A/B/A/A/C/A/B/A/D/D/A/B

Final grade: B

Comment: Frequent double-teams limited him to 10 sacks. His five forced fumbles led team. Strayed from team concept at times. May have forced more hold penalties than any player in league, although few were called.


LCB William Gay

Weekly grades: C/C/B/B/B/C/D/C/B/D/F/F/D/F/C/C

Final grade: C-

Comment: Weakest link in secondary. Failed to elevate game in first season as starter. Led team in tackles (70), mainly because no player had more chances. Did not pick off pass, forced one fumble.


RCB Ike Taylor

Weekly grades: C/B/A/A/B/D/B/C/A/A/C/D/D/D/A/A

Final grade: B-

Comment: Not as consistent as in seasons past. Had four consecutive subpar games in stretch drive. Lone interception took place on final defensive snap of final game. Lacks athleticism to be among elite at position.


SS Tyrone Carter

Weekly grades: C/B/B/D/A/D/D/A/B/B/B/C/C/F/C/D

Final grade: C

Comment: Heart was in right place, but head was elsewhere too often. Frequently out of position especially as pass defender. Veteran totaled 49 tackles, one interception, and one forced fumble. His role should be limited to special teams only.


SS Troy Polamalu


Final grade: A

Comment: Had no peer when on field, but durability remained question mark. Saw action in five games, sat out 11 others. Kamikaze style isn’t conducive to extended career. Survived entire schedule only once in last four regular seasons.


FS Ryan Clark

Weekly grades: B/B/A/B/A/B/B/DNP/A/D/C/B/B/D/B/A

Final grade: B-

Comment: Consistent in run support, not as effective in pass coverage. Paced secondary in tackles (68), co-leader in interceptions (three). Thirty-year-old veteran should be pursued aggressively in free-agent market.