It was the same question the Steelers faced all of last season: is the defense that has consistently been excellent too old to succeed? Last season, with a unit with an average age of 34, the fountain of youth seemed to have spouted out in Point Park as the Steel Curtain dropped hard on the rest of the league.
The linebacking core was one of the best in the league with the emergence of Lawrence Timmons, and the defensive line showed depth with Nick Eason and Ziggy Hood being energized by Brett Keisel's beard. The secondary was not the best in the league, but was nowhere near the worst and was led by Defensive Player of the Year Troy Polamalu.
Yet, another year passes, a low draft pick hinders the Steelers' ability to draft a true playmaker, the CBA negotiations prevent trading up in said draft (for now) and ownership will sign an expensive free agent the day that Charlie Sheen decides he is a loser.
So yes, the question will be asked again: is this unit too old? Will the Steelers defense that almost set a modern era record for fewest rushing yards suffer the same fate as their arch rival Baltimore Ravens and watch consistency and ability slowly slip away?
The answer: No. Why? Because contrary to popular belief, the Steelers are just fine.
The defensive line is led by Casey Hampton, who will play at a high level as long as the salad patrol follows him during the offseason and a cheeseburger is placed on the quarterback.
In all seriousness, Hampton still has one or two years left as a high playing starter and this year's draft features many talented defensive tackles that can be coached up. Hood looks to be a future stud at the end position and can continue to grow with Smith and Keisel's tutelage.
The linebacking core is solid. While Woodley and Timmons are both contract players, both seem genuinely interested in staying in Pittsburgh and being part of a traditionally excellent group. Harrison may be aging, but his workout ethic will keep him playing for several more seasons. Kieran Fox also shows tremendous potential to continue this legacy.
Finally, to the defensive backs.
Troy Polamalu is a Hall of Fame caliber player. His injuries may worry some, but I seriously think that due to the success the Steelers were able to achieve at times without him, this helps the unit's overall confidence. Ryan Mundy can be an adequate replacement for the aging Ryan Clark.
At corner, Ike may walk, McFadden and Gay are not number one quality defenders and barely qualify as number twos, so obviously this spot must be filled asap. But this area is due to talent, not rust. The draft is a very viable option to fix this hole, possibly even free agency to sign another number two quality defender for depth.
However, this is a hole everyone in Steeler Nation knows exists and Tomlin is too shrewd of a coach to let this hole exist for another season.
This unit is great. There is a good chance that this season, they will only be good. However, the Steelers are never down for long and the defense, when struggling, always finds a way to become not just good, but elite.