Creating the Pittsburgh Steelers' Top Ranked Defense

Nick SignorelliSenior Writer IJune 12, 2009

TAMPA, FL - FEBRUARY 01:  Fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers support their team as the Steeler defense readies to line up for a play against the Arizona Cardinals during Super Bowl XLIII on February 1, 2009 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. Steelers won 27-23. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

Prior to the 2008 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers had the second toughest schedule in the NFL.  With games against the NFC East, and the AFC South, along with contests against the New England Patriots and San Diego Chargers, it was supposed to be a hard season for the black and gold.

Somebody forgot to tell Dick LeBeau.

The 2008 Steelers were dominating to say the very least.  They led the NFL in total yards against and passing yards against.  They also came in second against the rush, trailing the Minnesota Vikings by a total of 54 yards, which is less than four per game.

Pittsburgh also led the league only allowing 13.9 points per game.

The Steelers had the toughest schedule for any Super Bowl winner since the 1979 Pittsburgh Steelers.

With one of the toughest schedules in the league, and still managing to be the best on defense, the 2009 season is looking like another year in which Pittsburgh can again lead the league in most, if not all defensive categories.

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So, how was this amazing defense constructed?  How did the Steelers once again put a product on the field that struck fear into the hearts of offensive coordinators across the league?

Here is a breakdown of how the 2009 Steelers defense became Steelers.

Defensive Line

Casey Hampton, DT.  The mountain in the middle.  Hampton came to the Steelers with their first round pick in 2001.  At 6'1", 325 lbs (yeah, right), Hampton can clog the middle of the field on every play.

His size and strength command at least a double team on every play, allowing the line backers to make the plays.  Entering the last year of his contract, if Hampton can show up to Latrobe in shape, look for Casey to be the top priority to re-sign.

Aaron Smith, DE.  At 6'5", 298lbs, Aaron Smith is the prototypical end for the 3-4 defensive alignment.  Not only does Smith stop the run, he also commands double teams.

The Steelers selected Smith in the fourth round of the 1999 draft, becoming a starter in only his second year on the team.

Brett Keisel, DE.  Keisel was drafted by the Steelers as a project more than as a starter.  He was selected in the seventh round of the 2002 draft.  Unlike Smith, it took Keisel until the 2006 before he became a full time starter.

Keisel was a special teams beast in his time before becoming a starter, and his passion carried over to the line when he became a starter.

Turning 31 shortly after the season starts, more than likely, first round pick Ziggy Hood will be taking Keisels place at the end of the 2009 season, as Keisel is set to become a free agent.

Line Backers.

Pittsburgh Steelers Line Backers are known league wide as one of the best units in all of the NFL.  In the 3-4, there are four on the field every time they employ their base defense.  And those four are usually the best.

James Farrior, ILB.  Farrior was selected with the eighth pick in the 1997 draft by the New York Jets.  James played his first five seasons with the Jets, joining the Steelers in 2002 as one of the few free agents the Steelers ever sign.

To call Farrior the leader of the defense would be an understatement.  He has led the Steelers in tackles in four of the seven years he has been with the team.

The Steelers also broke one of their own rules with Farrior, signing him to a four year contract extension last off season, instead of letting the older player walk like normal.

Lawrence Timmons, ILB.  Timmons was the Steelers first round pick in 2007, and the first pick of the Mike Tomlin regime.

Out of Florida State University, Timmons was brought in to eventually replace Farrior.  But with Farrior not slowing down, and Larry Foote no longer to hold off Timmons, Foote was released so Timmons could take his place as the rightful starter.

Dick LeBeau has stated Timmons has "Troy Polamalu" type of ability.  If he is even close to that, he will be preparing to make a few trips to the Pro Bowl.

James Harrison, OLB.  The reigning Defensive MVP, Harrison had an interesting path to greatness.

Harrison was an un drafted player out of Kent State.  There was another famous Steeler that came from there, Jack Lambert.

Harrison was cut by the Steelers three times, landing once with the Baltimore Ravens, who allocated him to NFL Europe.

Even though he was a member of the Steelers Super Bowl XL team, he only played on special teams. 

Harrison was prepared to walk away from football prior to the 2007 season, when a freak injury to Clark Haggans that sidelined him for all of training camp forced the Steelers to give Harrison another shot.

This time, he made the most of it.  Harrison had a great year in 2007, but nothing compared to 2008.

Harrison and LaMarr Woodley set a Steelers record for most sacks by linebackers with 27.5.  He also set a Super Bowl record for the longest play from scrimmage with a 100 yard interception return for a touchdown against the Arizona Cardinals.

Harrison was rewarded for all of his hard work this off season with a contract extension for six years and almost $52 million.

LaMarr Woodley, OLB.  The second pick of the Mike Tomlin era, drafting Woodley out of Michigan in the second round of the 2007 draft.  Woodley was brought in to replace the legendary Joey Porter.

Unlike Timmons, Woodley saw a lot of playing time in his rookie season in passing situations.  Teaming up on the ends with James Harrison, Woodley has become the second of the one-two punch that offensive coordinators fear.

In his four playoff games, including the Super Bowl, Woodley has recorded two sacks in each of those four games, setting a record for most consecutive playoff games with at least two sacks.

Secondary

Ike Taylor, CB.  At 6'2", 195 lbs, and blazing speed, Ike Taylor has become a true shut down corner in the NFL.  If he were to find a way to learn how to catch a football, Ike would be the best corner in the league.

In Weeks 7-14 of the 2008 season, Ike Taylor went up against TJ Houshmandzadeh, Plaxico Burress, Santana Moss, Reggie Wayne, Vincent Jackson, TJ (again), Randy Moss and Terrell Owens.

In those eight games, Taylor only allowed Reggie Wayne over 50 reception yards and held all seven receivers to only three touchdowns combined!

Taylor came to the Steelers in the fourth round of the 2003 draft.  Coming from a small school, Louisiana - Lafayette, it took until 2005 to become the full time starter.

In 2006, Taylor fell out of favor with Bill Cowher after having a couple bad games, but when Mike Tomlin came in, Taylor has progressed to being the best corner on the team.

William Gay, CB.  A player most people do not know much about, but they will.

Gay came to the Steelers in the fifth round of the 2007 draft out of Louisville.  Standing at 5'10, 190 lbs, Gay is not as big as Ike Taylor, but always seems to be in the correct position.

Last season when Bryant McFadden was lost for four games due to an arm injury, Gay replaced him, and played well enough to show Tomlin that he was more than capable at taking his place permanently.

After returning from injury, McFadden had to split playing time with Gay for the remainder of the season, and thru the Super Bowl.

Gay was the biggest reason the Steelers decided not to re-sign McFadden.

The biggest play that William Gay made during the season was in week 15 against the Baltimore Ravens.  After Ben Roethlisberger connected with Santonio Holmes to take the lead in the fourth quarter, the Ravens had one chance to win.

Ravens QB Joe Flacco threw a long pass to Derick Mason in the end zone which was intercepted by Gay to secure the Steeler victory and the AFC North divisional championship.

Troy Polamalu, SS.  Not only one of the best players on the Steelers, but also one of the best in the league.

Polamalu is a game changer.  On every play the other teams QB must know where Polamalu is at all times, or bad things will happen to him.

The 2003 draft also saw the Steelers trade up for the first time in their history to select Polamalu with the 16th pick of the first round out of USC.

After showing he had talent in his rookie season, Polamalu became a starter, and a force in 2004.

With his blazing speed and uncanny ability to know where the ball is going to be, Polamalu roams the field like a cartoon character, TAZ.

Whether it is making a diving interception like against the Chargers, or splitting two blockers to make a tackle, Polamalu has changed the way the safety position is played.  Of all the players currently on the Steelers roster, none are more likely to be enshrined in Canton, OH, than Mr. Polamalu.

Ryan Clark, FS.  Clark was signed in 2006 after being released by the Washington Redskins.  Clark has become the perfect fit playing next to Troy Polamalu.

Although he does average against the pass, his run support has made him one of the hardest hitting safeties in the league.

Against the Patriots last year, Clark knocked out receiver Wes Welker on a play that was flagged, but later the NFL stated that the hit was clean.

Clark also helped finish off the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship game by not only forcing a Willis McGahee fumble, but knocking him out with another vicious, clean hit.

There are only two players on the 2009 Steelers defense that were not starters there in 2008.  Both are positioned to be as good if not better than the men they are replacing.

The schedule for the 2009 Steelers is nowhere near as hard as it was last year.  If this team can play with the intensity and toughness that they had in 2008, this team could not only be the best in the NFL, but could be the best the NFL has ever had.