Pittsburgh Steelers in Race Against Time to Reload Defense

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Pittsburgh Steelers in Race Against Time to Reload Defense
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

I was somewhat surprised when looking at the Sporting News Draft Guide for 2010 to see every Steelers defensive position except for the two safety spots listed as need areas.

Considering how great the defense was in 2008, this was somewhat shocking. While the defense struggled to hold leads in 2009, it still put together a very sound statistical season.

However, it is hard to argue with the magazine’s assessment. If anything, the writers may have been too charitable at the safety position, not wanting to list every defensive position as an area of need.

Considering both starting safeties have missed time for injuries and that Ryan Clark is getting older, they at least have depth issues at the position. 

There is not much backing up the two top safeties at this point. I was concerned enough at the position that I predicted the Steelers would draft a safety in the second round. 

Interestingly, the much more maligned offense was assessed much better, with only tackle and wide receiver listed as need areas. Frankly, with the emergence of Mike Wallace as a blue-chip receiver and the addition of the reliable Antwaan Randle El, I don't agree with that assessment on the wide receiver corps. 

In the salary cap era, every team has depth issues. A couple injuries can quickly derail the season of every team in the league.

That said, it is still a bit perplexing to see the Steelers defense decline quite as quickly as appears to be happening. Considering that a short year ago, some of us were predicting that the Steelers’ 2009 defense would be even better than the 2008 version, something obviously went wrong. 

What happened?

The primary villain is age—and the second villain, injuries, is directly tied to the first one.

The Steelers had a tremendous core of defensive players, but that core of players is hitting the age where players traditionally decline all at about the same time. They are also hitting the age when extended injuries become much more likely. This age imbalance is less than ideal. 

The ideal is for the ages to be spread out over more years, allowing for a team to steadily identify and train up replacements. 

The defensive line next year will likely start players who are 32, 33, and 34 years old, if Evander Hood fails to supplant Brett Keisel as the starter.

The Steelers’ best linebacker and a former NFL defensive player of the year will be 32. Their best defensive leader among the linebackers, James Farrior, will turn 36 before the final second ticks down on this upcoming season.

Ryan Clark will turn 31 this season and Ike Taylor will turn 30, putting them just outside the area of concern, although Clark’s kamikaze style is a reason for some concern.

Even most of the solid backups are older players. In order to keep this corps of players together, the Steelers have had to make hard decisions that have cost them players who ideally would be waiting in the wings, like Bryant McFadden and perhaps Ryan McBean.

The result is that while the Steelers' defense has been one of the best in the league, it is now also one of the oldest.

Most of my formative years in Pittsburgh were spent in the 1980s watching all of the Steelers’ greats from the '70s struggle as their careers inevitably wound down.

We may have started watching the same process unfold with the Steelers we watched win two Super Bowls together during this decade. Last year, there was an obvious slip in the play of both Farrior and Deshea Townsend, the latter of whom no longer factors into anything more than short-term plans as a backup.

Not every player will start his decline at the same time or at the same speed, but every player will eventually see a noticeable decline in his play. There is no way to beat it. For most players, it likely starts somewhere around 31 or 32 and becomes much more accelerated around 34.

There is a good reason that the Steelers have traditionally, at least until recently, been hesitant to sign players over 30 years old to big contracts. It is always a risky proposition.

There are very few Kevin Greenes and Rod Woodsons out there, players who were still playing close to their top level into their late 30s.

Woodson, incidentally, is the one player the Rooneys lamented letting go prematurely, although the decision was sound based upon the traditional age-related decline. His ability to transition from cornerback to safety was a contributing factor to his extended Hall of Fame career.

While it tends to be less noticeable in superstar players, the decline is still happening. These players just have further to fall before it becomes undeniable.

As of right now, you can count the number of solid young defensive players on the Steelers' roster on one hand. 

There are only two younger players on the Steelers’ roster who look to be safe bets to fill the roles of these older players on the same level. LaMarr Woodley is already a star as an outside linebacker, and Lawrence Timmons is a good bet to develop into a very good inside linebacker, although he still has plenty of room for improvement.

The signing of Larry Foote buys some time since he knows the defense and can potentially step in for Farrior. 

It has also been argued that because of the late start to his career, James Harrison’s decline may start a bit later than normal, although that remains to be seen. While I was making that argument back when the Steelers re-signed him, I'm beginning to think that was wishful thinking, although his play in 2009 was still spectacular. 

Evander Hood showed flashes of playmaking ability in 2009 and could develop into a long-term replacement on the defensive line. But that would still leave two positions on the defensive line in need of long-term replacements.

There is hope that one of the two cornerbacks from the 2009 draft will emerge this year, but that is far from certain and would be something of a surprise if it did.

I think this defense has one more very good year in it, especially since they have one of the best defensive coordinators in the history of the game whose scheming helps to cover some of the shortcomings.

But after that, the decline will almost certainly be precipitous. It is also worth noting that if the Steelers draft a cornerback with their first round pick, they won’t be using him to replace any of these aging veterans, but to replace a young prospect they hoped would develop into a solid starter, putting them further behind in replacing the aging veterans.

In retrospect, the loss of Bryant McFadden was more damaging than most of us initially acknowledged.

These are not easy positions to replace, especially now that so many defenses are running a similar 3-4 scheme, making it harder to find ideal 3-4 defensive players slipping into later rounds. 

In the past, you could count on some 3-4 defensive linemen and outside linebackers slipping into the later rounds since only a couple teams were running the right scheme to utilize their talents. The Steelers throughout the '90s could easily replace outside linebackers, usually in the later rounds. Those days are over.

This makes the Steelers a victim of their own success to some degree since their outstanding defensive play over an extended time served as a primary factor in so many teams making that switch from the 4-3 to the 3-4. 

The Steelers are now in a race to see if they can find replacements faster than their defensive players decline—a race that started in 2009. Their future prospects will be determined by how well they do in that race.

No NFL draft has been more important to this team. They simply do not have the luxury to miss on early picks this year. They need to find at least two legitimate replacements for their defense, or it will be in real trouble in another year.

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