The Pittsburgh Steeler defense is considered by many as legendary. From the Steel Curtain of the 70s, to the Blitzburgh team of the early part of the 21st century, the Steelers are known as a team that puts a premium on defense.
As few as two years ago, Steelers fans were still having a fantastic defense to cheer for, but fans of other teams were quick to point out that the Steelers' defense was getting old.
Yes, there was validity to what some of those people were saying. Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel were both nearing their mid-30s, James Farrior and James Harrison, two of the Steelers vaunted linebackers, were both in their 30s.
Move forward to today, Ike Taylor, the Steelers' leading corner back is in his 30s, and Troy Polamalu, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, is also in his 30s.
Is it possible that the Steelers' defense was simply going to get so old that they were no longer going to be the premier unit for the Steelers? Would age catch up to the Steelers, and a lack of talent doom Steelers Nation to have a few bad seasons?
The Steelers have a few philosophies that they live by: build your team through the draft, draft the best available player and don't let what a player has done in the past keep you from allowing them to play when they no longer can play at the level needed to be a Pittsburgh Steeler.
In 2007, the first year of the Mike Tomlin regime, the Steelers made their first preemptive strike towards the "old" label, spending two of their first-round picks on line backers, Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley. Timmons was slated to become the leader on the inside, while Woodley, who was converting from defensive end at Michigan, would hopefully become the pass rush specialist for the outside.
Though it has taken Timmons three years to become that inside leader, 2010 was his coming out party. Many people believed that he deserved his first Pro Bowl nomination. With Woodley, the Steelers found their next beast on the outside, and rewarded him with the second largest contract in the history of the Steelers (second only to Ben Roethlisberger).
In 2008, the Steelers spent their first-round draft pick on a defensive tackle from Missouri named Evander "Ziggy" Hood. It was believed that Hood would eventually be able to work into the rotation with Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel.
In 2010, when Smith was lost for the season after only six games, Hood came in and showed that the Steelers had made a wise decision in bringing in Hood.
After falling short of their goal in 2010 of winning the Super Bowl, the Steelers invested in the 31st pick in the draft, Cameron Hayward, defensive end from Ohio State.
Though many people believe that Hayward is going to take at least a year before he develops into a constant contributor, his drive and work ethic may earn him a permanent spot in the defensive line rotation in 2011.
In 2010, the Steelers used a similar approach in the draft, choosing Jason Worilds in the second round, who seems to be the eventual replacement for James Harrison. In his limited playing time in 2010, Worilds showed that he has the pass rush ability similar to that or Harrison and Woodley.
Yes, it is going to be hard for Worilds to earn playing time with two Pro Bowl players in the rotation ahead of him. On special teams, Worilds showed his abilities at attacking the ball. If that can convert to defense, Worilds could be the next Woodley.
Stevenson Sylvester was selected by the Steelers with their fifth-round pick in the same draft as Worilds. Though many believed that Sylvester would take a few years to become a contributor, he showed enough in practice and on special teams to make the Steelers choose to keep him on the roster instead of fourth-round pick Thaddeus Gibson.
Gibson signed with the San Francisco 49ers, and Sylvester seems to be light-years ahead of Gibson.
That is a total of six defenders in the last four years that all could become regular starters within the next two years. Some of them are there already.
In 2011, the Steelers also spent their third-round pick on Curtis Brown, a corner from Texas. Brown has good size and speed, and could earn the Nickel role on the Steelers' defense in 2011. He should be a regular starter in 2012, barring injury, no later than 2013.
With their next pick, the Steelers chose Cortez Allen out of the Citidel. Allen is viewed as a project, but the Steelers believe they could have found their next Ike Taylor in selecting Allen.
That makes eight of the 11 Steelers all within their first five years in the NFL.
Yes, there are still questions on the other positions for the Steelers. A replacement for Casey Hampton is eventually going to need to be found. Hampton is 33 years old, and at the most has two solid years left before he starts to slide. There is no one on the roster the Steelers are grooming as Hampton's replacement.
The other two questions are at the two safety positions.
Troy Polamalu is one of the best players in the NFL. He is the reigning DPOY and changes the way the opposition's offense plays on every snap. Polamalu is entering the last year of his contract, but there is a rumor that negotiations on an extension are already underway.
Polamalu is also 30 years old and has had injury concerns over the last two years. It is possible that Polamalu will play another five years, but the Steelers need to think about insurance in case Polamalu suffers another injury this year.
Ryan Clark is perfect playing next to Polamalu. They know each other and Clark always knows where to be on the field so Polamalu can use his instincts. Clark is 31 years old. He plays with reckless abandon, as many people consider him a head hunter. Clark is one hit away from knocking himself out of the NFL.
With Polamalu and Clark, the Steelers have invested draft picks on players that could one day replace them. Ryan Mundy Keenen Lewis and Da'Mon Cromartie-Smith will all have the chance to earn playing time, but none seem to have the natural, God-given ability to be top-tier players if either Clark or Polamalu are injured.
Some people, me included, believe the Steelers should at least call the San Francisco 49ers and find out what it would take to trade for Taylor Mays. Though Mays may not be an immediate replacement, he is not due a ton of money over the next two years, and having two years behind Clark and Polamalu, Mays could become like his USC predecessor Polamalu.
If the Steelers decide to stick with what they have, they still have eight quality starters set for the future, with the ability to fill those other positions in next year's draft.
Either way, the Steelers' method of building their team seems to again be solid, as the future of the Steelers' defense is looking like history is repeating itself again.
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