Over the last decade-plus, no team has played stifling defense to the extent of the Pittsburgh Steelers. No team has buried ball-carriers in their tracks better than the team in black and gold. Which is why it should surprise no one that on a consistent basis, a member of that vaunted defense is generally in the running for the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year award, annually given out to the most outstanding defensive performer in the entire NFL.
The 2010-2011 version of the award is still up for grabs, and by my count, three Steelers players are legitimate contenders for the heralded award. Strong safety Troy Polamalu, right outside linebacker James Harrison (2008 Defensive Player of the Year) and inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons are all having outstanding seasons for the black and gold, in a year where the defense was called upon early and often perhaps more so than any other year.
Of course when one brings up the Pittsburgh Steelers defense, the one player that comes to mind is the man of 1,000 locks, Troy Polamalu, the stunningly quick and intelligent safety that fears no quarterback. He's a master at timing the blitz and wrapping up the ball-carrier short of the first down, and is one of the best tacklers on a defense that prides itself on not giving the offense a second chance.
The statistics don't truly tell the entire story when it comes to Polamalu's value to the Steelers defense, but the leadership, experience and attitude that he brings certainly tell the most about what kind of player he is and what he means to the team itself. He's the glue that holds the heralded defense together and rallies his teammates around him more so than any other player in the NFL.
His major statistics as of this writing:
- 62 tackles
- one sack
- one forced fumble
- six interceptions (tied for second in the NFL)
- one defensive touchdown
Polamalu is the Steelers player with the greatest overall chance of winning the Defensive Player of the Year Award, despite the passing defense as a whole being the one chink in the Steelers armor.
Moving a little closer to the line, we are greeted by the 2008 Defensive Player of the Year and current NFL whipping boy, James Harrison. Along with his partner in crime, book end LaMarr Woodley, he seems to have mastered the art of the "strip sack." That is, of course, the ability to not only bring the quarterback down behind the line, but to cause a potential turnover in the process.
He, like Woodley, is virtually unblockable in the legal realm of the NFL world, but in the practical realm, the NFL turns a blind eye to superstar outside linebackers such as Harrison, DeMarcus Ware, Elvis Dumervil, etc. when it comes to holding penalties, because of their abilities to reach the "golden boys" of the NFL.
- 79 tackles
- 10 sacks
- six forced fumbles
- two interceptions
He's gotten the opportunity to drop back more often this year than in the past, and has snagged two passes that were, allegedly, intended for an offensive player. Harrison is the only undrafted free agent to ever win the award, and if won at the end of this season, would join VERY elite company as multiple-time winners include Lawrence Taylor, Joe Greene, Mike Singletary, Bruce Smith, Reggie White and Ray Lewis.
Harrison will likely have to match his career high in sacks to win the award this season, especially with Miami's Cameron Wake coming on extremely strong in the sack department.
Lawrence Timmons is a fan favorite, after assuming the starting inside linebacker spot in 2009. He's an outside linebacker playing inside for the Steelers. This gives Hall of Famer Dick LeBeau ample blitzing opportunities, as he has three linebackers that are superb at dropping the quarterback, and another that, while a step slower than the trio, is very good at blowing up plays in his own right.
Timmons has been taking over a bit of Polamalu's game this year, being able to roam freely in the defensive front, and making plays as a result. He seems to be in on every defensive play there is to be had.
- 108 tackles
- three sacks
- one forced fumble
- two interceptions
With Pittsburgh playing against some pretty quick running backs, Timmons is a cog in the passing game. With his speed and instincts, he can match up with running backs like Baltimore's Ray Rice when he slips out of the backfield. His tackle numbers speak for themselves in the running game, as he anchors the league's best run defense. And when I say best run defense, I mean that it's not even close. The second-best run defense is allowing nearly 28 more yards per game on the ground.
Timmons is a young player, with a limitless ceiling and it will be exciting to watch him take over the middle and mentor a young gun, as James Farrior did with him.
Regular season awards mean virtually nothing to the Pittsburgh Steelers as a collective group, as they all have their eyes on more prestigious, postseason awards. This is what happens when a team is bred on hard work, and success. Any of the three mentioned above could win the award, and not many could argue the outcome, but on the same note, any of the three above would hand the award back in a heartbeat if it meant they had a shot to play in and win the Super Bowl.
Three hardworking, hard hitting defenders brought up in a system that demands excellence from their defense, and three men that epitomize what Pittsburgh Steelers football is all about.