I recently wrote an article cautioning that the Steelers’ defense is getting old. A few people who commented indicated that this is always the case with the Steelers since they play veterans over younger players.
While it is true that the Steelers sometimes take their time in working younger players into the lineup, an analysis of prior defenses proves this not to be the case.
Steelers’ defenses have traditionally been much younger than the 2010 version. The current situation is somewhat unique in recent Steelers’ history. Besides being one of the oldest defenses in the league, it is also one of the oldest in Steelers' history.
Consider the three Steelers’ defenses from their last three visits to the Super Bowl.
The 1995 defense that played against the Cowboys in the Super Bowl had one player who fit into the 31 years old or older category. That player was Kevin Greene, who was 33.
The average age of that starting defense was about 27.5, with a host of young defenders in reserve.
Incidentally, that was Greene’s last season for the Steelers. He was replaced the next season by a young and very good Jason Gilden.
The 1995 defense, which finished ninth in the league, was significantly outperformed by the 1994 defense that lost to the San Diego Chargers in the AFC Championship Game, a defense that was actually even younger.
The dominating 1994 defense, one of my favorites, finished second in the league.
Fast forward to 2004, the next time the Steelers played in the Super Bowl. Again, there was only one significant Steelers’ defender in the 31 or older category. It was Kimo Van Oelhoffen, who was 34. The defense’s average age that year was a very young 26.5, a year younger than the 1995 defense.
As with Greene, that was Van Oelhoffen’s last season with the Steelers, meaning that the two oldest players on the 2005 Steelers’ defense were James Farrior and Deshea Townsend, both 31 at the time. The Steelers’ management at the time was still very hesitant to resign aging veterans.
If anything, the management erred on the side of overcaution when it came to aging players, showing a willingness to part ways with players who still had the potential of a few more good years left in the tank, players like Rod Woodson, Kevin Greene, Chad Brown, and Joey Porter.
Fast forward to 2008 when the Steelers boasted one of the best defenses in league history en route to their second Super Bowl championship of the decade.
This defense was significantly older than the other Steeler defenses, with four key defenders in the 31 or older category. These aging Steelers were James Farrior, Aaron Smith, Deshea Townsend, and Casey Hampton, three of whom still figure heavily into Steelers’ plans two years later.
The average age of this defense was just over 29 years old, a full 2.5 years older on average than the 2005 defense.
Fast forward to the likely starting defense in 2010.
For the purposes of this projection, I made a couple assumptions that may or not be true. I penciled Larry Foote into the starting lineup over James Farrior. I also assumed that Evander Hood, though he will receive more playing time, will not yet supplant either Aaron Smith or Brett Keisel from the starting lineup. I also kept William Gay in the starting lineup at cornerback.
This would mean that five starters are in the 31 or older club. Two additional starters are 30 years old. That pushes the starting age of the defense to about 30, more than three years older than the 2005 defense and close to a year older than the 2008 defense.
The current defense is significantly older than the 1979 Steelers’ defense, the last one that captured a title in the 1970s. There was a noticeable decline in their play in the years that followed.
In 1979, many of the key Steelers’ defenders were still relatively young. Joe Greene was the greybeard at 33. Jack Lambert was 27. Jack Ham was 31. Mel Blount was 31. Steve Furness was 29. Donnie Shell was 27. Mike Wagner was 30.
What we didn’t know at the time was that this was a defense on the verge of a precipitous decline. That decline was hastened by a string of bad drafts in the 1980s on both sides of the ball.
The Steelers are entering a very similar window. The core group of veterans that carried the team to two Super Bowls is getting old and nearing the end of their careers.
If the Steelers do not have a run of a couple very good drafts, they will suffer a similar fate. For those of us who grew up in the 1980s, that is an ugly thought.
Their task is made far more challenging by the switch of so many teams to the 3-4 defense. In the 1990s, the Steelers had a remarkably easy time replacing linebackers, turning several late round picks into stars or signing free agents that became terrors once they suited up in black and gold.
It is wishful thinking to think the Steelers will be able to continue doing this now that over half the league is using the same scheme, a number that seems to climb with each new season.
This also holds true for the defensive line. At one point, the Steelers were about the only team in the league salivating over players like Casey Hampton and Aaron Smith.
That is no longer the case. In fact, teams now reach on nose tackles and 3-4 defensive ends, drafting them far earlier than they would have been in the past. If he were to come out today, Hampton would easily be a top ten pick. Back when the Steelers drafted him, he was barely on the radarscope.
Last year, the Kansas City Chiefs spent their third overall pick on Tyson Jackson to be a 3-4 defensive end. In the past, he likely would have fallen to the bottom of the first round, or further. He certainly played like a later round pick.
If the Steelers were the only team, or even one of a few teams, running a 3-4 defensive scheme, they likely would not have resigned Hampton and perhaps not Brett Keisel or Aaron Smith.
They also would have offered less to James Harrison. The new reality is that these guys are a lot harder to replace.
I do not fault the Steelers for the situation in which they find themselves. They rode these players to two Super Bowls and created some great memories for the city and the team's fanbase, which is far more valuable than a younger roster.
And it was their tremendous run of success on the defensive side of the ball, success later mirrored by the Patriots after they made the switch that helped trigger the mass exodus from the 4-3 to the 3-4. They are a victim of their own success.
I don’t expect a Dick LeBeau-led defense will ever be truly bad. If he can coach until he is 120, the Steelers would be better for it. But, the defense can easily slide into middle of the pack status within the next couple years if the Steelers don’t hit on some good young prospects fast.
While they do have some good young guys on the roster, you have to be wearing some mighty bright rose-colored glasses to truly believe the Steelers have replacements for all of these aging veterans lined up.
They have one excellent young linebacker and one good one already starting and a couple others who show the potential to step in as more than serviceable starters.
They have one good young defensive line prospect with three vacancies right around the corner.
As for the secondary, while the Steelers drafted two cornerbacks last year, it is too early to conclude that they have any good young prospects on the roster at either cornerback or safety. It is a safe bet that Keenan Lewis is not the next Rod Woodson just waiting for his chance.
The next two to three drafts will be critical. The time is now to find a host of good young prospects who can play soon.