Pittsburgh Steelers: Ranking the Defensive Starters
Last week the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive starters were ranked and it was reaffirmed that the offensive line as a whole is the weak link, while the team is loaded at the skill positions.
A similar pattern will be seen on the defensive side of the ball, but that did not make these rankings easy.
Pittsburgh’s defense is very strong, comprised of some of the best and most feared players in the league.
The Steelers defense is a veteran-laden unit with several young players with the look of future stars. They will have to sit tight, because the starting talent is just too good right now.
As mentioned last week, the Steelers have a deep roster with exceptional talent at many of the starting positions, making the defensive particularly difficult to rank.
Direction of Football Operations Kevin Colbert and head coach Mike Tomlin put together a starting lineup consisting of stars and role players. The end result has been a formula for consistent winning.
Pittsburgh’s defense has been playing at a dominant level for the past few seasons and this group wants to continue that proud tradition.
Here is a look at the how the projected 2011 defensive starters rank:
11. Bryant McFadden
From the time that he was drafted in the second round of the 2005 draft, Bryant McFadden appeared to have the pedigree of not only a future starter, but a very good starter at cornerback.
Year after year, however, McFadden was unable to crack the starting lineup. That meant he could not beat out Deshea Townsend. Finally, in 2008 McFadden started seven games in an injury-shortened season.
McFadden would go on to have a successful season and sign with the Arizona Cardinals after Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl XLIII win.
He struggled in his one-year stint in Arizona before Pittsburgh traded for him and a sixth-round draft choice for their fifth-round selection.
The struggles would continue in Pittsburgh as McFadden battled lingering injuries throughout the year and only had two interceptions.
McFadden was a target for opposing quarterbacks on a weekly basis and there are now questions whether he is a capable starter. For the Steelers, however, McFadden is the best option that they have outside of Ike Taylor, making him the weak link on defense.
10. Ryan Clark
Ryan Clark is a fine player and a leader on the defense, but can be a liability in the passing game.
Though he is the perfect compliment to Troy Polamalu, Clark struggles when his teammate is not in the lineup.
Clark does not have the speed to stick with fast receivers and will often get beat deep.
Another quality that holds Clark back is his insistence on going for the big hit rather than attempt to make a play on the ball. By no means could Clark be an Ed Reed-type player, but he could certainly be more of a ballhawk if he focused more on playing the ball.
Despite the low ranking, Clark is excellent in run defense and had a couple of big plays in this year’s playoffs, including intercepting a Joe Flacco pass which helped change the momentum of the AFC Divisional playoff game.
As long as Polamalu is in the lineup, Clark is an excellent fit for Pittsburgh’s defense. If he is out there with Ryan Mundy or another backup, Clark becomes a target for opposing quarterbacks.
9. James Farrior
After the 2009 season, James Farrior looked done.
He bounced back in a big way in 2010.
Though his stats weren’t immensely better (with only seven more tackles and three more sacks), Farrior looked like a different player. He was faster to the ball, a heavy hitter and was not a liability when defending the pass.
Farrior is to the Steelers defense what Hines Ward is to their offense. Both players are the oldest members of their respective units but are the emotional and vocal leaders.
Simply put, they bring something a little bit extra when stepping onto the field.
Having Farrior ranked ninth on defense is a testament to how good the Steelers defense really is. Even though he will be one year older, he has been working hard this offseason and is in excellent shape.
Farrior can’t afford to slow down with Larry Foote ready to step in at any time and Stevenson Sylvester looking like a future starter.
As long as he doesn’t lose a step, Farrior should be in for another good season.
8. Ziggy Hood
Ziggy Hood had a great training camp in 2010. Oddly enough, that did not translate onto the field during the preseason and his action was limited during the regular season.
Then he had the opportunity to step in for an injured Aaron Smith, and Hood delivered.
Hood finished the year with 20 tackles and three sacks in nine starts, but got better and better each week. By the end of the year, Hood may have been the Steelers best defensive lineman.
Hood had sacks in three of his final four starts of the season and followed that performance up with two sacks in three playoff games, including one in the Super Bowl.
There is a question as to whether Hood will start or not this season, which is why he is so low on this list. The likely scenario is that he split time with Smith and get more and more playing time as the season progresses.
As long as Hood’s development continues at the rate it is now he will be one of the top defenders by the end of the season.
7. Brett Keisel
Brett Keisel is the new Aaron Smith, meaning he is an underrated 3-4 defensive end.
Though he is not and will never as good a 3-4 end as Smith was, Keisel quietly goes about his job and gets it done. His performance this season earned him a Pro Bowl berth.
In only 11 starts, Keisel had 33 tackles and three sacks. He also has shown to be excellent at getting his arms into a quarterback's passing lanes.
Keisel had seven pass defenses last season, nearly four times more than the rest of the defensive line combined. On top of that, he had a highlight reel 79-yard interception return for a touchdown and two forced fumbles.
It is Keisel’s athleticism that separates him from the rest of his defensive line teammates. None can match his speed and leaping ability.
Keisel could be even better this year with rookie Cameron Heyward now on board. If Heyward can earn reps as the season progresses, Keisel could get some valuable rest which will keep him fresh and healthy through the grueling NFL season.
6. Ike Taylor
It could be argued that Ike Taylor is one of the two or three most important players on Pittsburgh’s defense.
He is the closest thing that they have to a shutdown cornerback and is the only true starting-caliber cornerback on the team.
Taylor is asked to do a lot on a weekly basis. Pittsburgh expects him to cover their opponent’s top receiver week-in and week-out, and he typically does an excellent job.
Though Taylor is not one of the top cornerbacks in the league, he is still the best that the Steelers have and gets the job done.
Taylor is physical when defending the run and had 66 tackles last season. He added one sack, 11 pass defenses, two interceptions and a forced fumble.
Not everyone has a 6’1” corner who runs a sub 4.40-40, and if the Steelers lose him they will have big shoes to fill.
5. Lawrence Timmons
At the start of the season Lawrence Timmons looked as though he could be not only the best defender on the Steelers roster, but maybe in the entire league.
Through the first eight weeks of the season, Timmons had 74 tackles, gathering 10 or more tackles in five games of those eight games. He also added three sacks.
Those numbers tailed off in the second half of the season, but Timmons still ended with 135 tackles and two interceptions to go along with his three sacks. He also defended nine passes.
Timmons is easily the Steelers' most athletic linebacker and may be the second-best athlete on the team to Polamalu.
A part of the reason Timmons' production seemed to decline was that he was asked to do Polamalu’s job of roaming around the field. This didn’t quite work out.
Timmons is his own player and cannot take on Polamalu’s role. No one can.
The athleticism of Timmons allowed him to help in the passing game which eased this burden from Farrior.
With a season’s worth of starting experience under his belt, expect Timmons to have a huge year this season. He could become the Steelers' most dangerous defender.
4. Casey Hampton
Now to change gears from super athletes to super stoppers, in comes Casey Hampton.
Hampton moves well for a 325-pound (I only report what they list him as) nose tackle, but is expected to occupy space rather than chase opponents around the field.
Hampton is the key piece to the Steelers 3-4 defense. It is designed to eliminate the ground game from the equation and he helps them do that each and every time out.
In 2010, Pittsburgh’s defense allowed only 1,004 yards on the ground, a paltry 3.0 yards per carry average. Opponents scored a league-low five running touchdowns against the Steelers.
The Steelers' dominance against the run is centered around Hampton. There are times that teams give up on the run because of how good Pittsburgh is. Hampton simply clogs the middle running lane, while the team's speedy linebackers take away the edges.
Teams ran the ball 333 times against the Steelers in 2010, 33 fewer attempts against than the second-ranked team.
Without Hampton’s presence in the Steelers lineup, teams could have more success on the ground and become more balanced.
As it is now, Pittsburgh can be counted on to stop the run. Without Hampton, it will be up to Dick LeBeau and Mike Tomlin to find new ways to stop the pass.
3. LaMarr Woodley
LaMarr Woodley is a streaky player. He may go weeks without a sack, but when he’s on, he is one of the best outside linebackers in the league.
Woodley just completed his third straight season with double-digit sacks, finishing with 10. He also continued his development defending the pass with five pass defenses and two interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown.
Outside linebackers are expected to make plays for the Steelers and Woodley has done just that. Besides his sacks and interceptions, he had three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
Though his streak of consecutive multi-sack games in the playoffs ended, Woodley still had a sack in each playoff game as well as a big fumble recovery in the Baltimore game.
If Woodley develops a bit more consistency he could very well develop into the top outside linebacker in the game.
2. James Harrison
Maybe best known for his big hits and fines, James Harrison played at an MVP level this past season.
Of course, in Pittsburgh’s defense that doesn’t mean much, since Harrison was only the team’s second best defender.
Despite being under close watch by officials and being double-teamed and held by offensive linemen each week, Harrison still had 10.5 sacks. He is, in my opinion, the best pass rusher in the league.
As with previous years, he is a terror at forcing fumbles, adding six more this past season. That makes 25 forced fumbles for Harrison over the last four years.
Harrison also had two interceptions and five passes defensed.
It is his ability to get to the quarterback on every play that makes him such a special player.
Opponents must focus their protection on Harrison and this doesn’t always work. Just ask Joe Flacco and Baltimore how they felt about Harrison’s three-sack performance in the AFC Divisional playoff game.
For 99 percent of NFL teams, Harrison would be the top player, but not the Steelers.
1. Troy Polamalu
Troy Polamalu was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year for a reason. Like Ben Roethlisberger on offense, when Polamalu is on the field he is making plays and the Steelers are winning.
Since his first year as a starter in 2004, Pittsburgh is 75-29 when Polamalu is in the lineup and only 12-9 when he is out. The difference is like night and day.
There is no player in the league who can do what he does.
Polamalu is effective near the line of scrimmage but can instantly get back into deep coverage. He has great ball skills, can hit like a truck and is elusive when the ball is in his hands. He is one special player.
Though he started 14 games last season, Polamalu was not healthy for all of them. That did not slow him down though as he had seven interceptions, one returned for a touchdown, 11 passes defensed and more highlight reel plays than you can count.
The one that stood out, though, was when Polamalu perfectly timed a Kerry Collins snap count and leapt over the line of scrimmage to make a sack.
It is plays like these, or crucial interceptions such as the one he had in Buffalo, that makes Polamalu the player that he is and that is the best one the Steelers defense and maybe the best in the league.
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