It was bad enough that the Steelers sustained a 35-7 loss against the hated Ravens on Opening Day last season. Yet in the aftermath of “The Charm City Massacre,” every pundit seemed to do the fashionable thing and criticized the Steelers’ Defense, especially everyone’s favorite “financial wizard” and “Bountygate Snitch Finder” Warren Sapp. As we all remember, Sapp described the Steelers Defense as “old, slow, and over” and was one of many which believed that the Steelers run of dominance as a Defense was through.
Granted, I will not debate the notions that some of Pittsburgh’s Defenders are a bit long in the tooth and have lost a step or two from their younger days. Those are facts, and most players when they age sustain career-ending injuries and/or see their play deteriorate. But you know what? Age isn’t a huge factor for some of the older players on this Defense, as many might think. In fact, guys like James Harrison, Brett Keisel, Ryan Clark, and Troy Polamalu still have a good amount of football left in their collective tanks, and figure to compete at a high level over the next few seasons.
As for the idea that the Steelers’ run of being a successful team on the Defensive side of the ball is “over,” maybe you need to do your homework Warren. Granted, some of the older players like Aaron Smith and James Farrior have been released or retired, but Colbert & Co. and the Coaching Staff have been doing their jobs well and quietly re-loading this team with some young talent over the past few seasons. So while many like you might not realize it now, a contingent of young talent on the Defensive side of the football is currently waiting in the wings for the Steelers, and should be ready to contribute at a high level in the near future.
Of all the positional units, the Steelers Defensive Line is the one which have received the most high-priced and attention filled upgrades over recent years. When Pittsburgh selected Ziggy Hood with their 1st Round pick in The 2009 N.F.L. Draft, you could tell that Colbert and Co. were worried about the age of their rotation of Defensive Lineman after their Super Bowl triumph. Hood has shown flashes over the course of his career that he can be a quality starter at the 5-Technique (55 Tackles last two seasons combined), and has the ability to get after the Quarterback on passing downs (4.5 Sacks last two seasons combined). Nevertheless, Hood must prove over the course of the next two seasons that he is indeed a consistent force at the position and meet expectations before he hits Free Agency in 2014.
Colbert & Co. understand that one Defensive End is not enough, and took full advantage in the 1st Round of the Draft in 2011 and selected Cameron Heyward to be the other 5-Technique of the future. Heyward looked much further ahead in his understanding of the 3-4 Defense and his effectiveness at the 5-Technique position than Ziggy Hood during his Rookie season, and big things will be expected from Cameron as he assumes the top backup spot in Pittsburgh’s Defensive End rotation. Even though Heyward’s statistical contributions were not overly huge (15 Tackles, 1 Forced Fumble, 1.0 Sack) in 2011, he played extremely well for a guy that had almost no offseason to acclimate himself to the team and the position. Effective play from Cameron will be of the utmost importance in 2012 however. Keeping Keisel and Hood fresh will benefit the entire Defensive Line, and the more reps Heyward can get the better it will be for Pittsburgh on the Defensive side of the ball.
With Big Snack’s knee in question and entering the twilight of his awesome career, the Steelers were in need of a future 0-Technique prospect to hopefully groom to replace Hampton at the Nose Tackle position. Well, Colbert and Co. seemed to have struck gold again, and the Steelers selected Alameda Ta’amu in Round 4 of The 2012 Draft last week. A classic run-stuffing, space-eating, hole-clogging monster, Ta’amu, who stands at 6’3″ 348 lbs., fits the 0-Technique mold to perfection and was a 2x Pac-10/12 Honorable Mention selection in college. A year of learning behind Hampton and under Defensive Line Coach John Mitchell will serve Ta’amu well to hone his technique against the run, and maybe even work on pushing the pocket more in the passing game to boot. While he might not be a huge contributor in 2012, Ta’amu figures in greatly to the Steelers’ future plans, and should become the starter in 2013 or 2014.
Another youngster we should keep our eyes on this season is Steve McLendon, as he figures to make some solid contributions this season in a reserve role. McLendon will likely assume the top backup role behind Hampton at the Nose, and should figure to chip in on passing downs, and might even see some time in the 5-Technique rotation as well. While McLendon might be a bit smaller than a typical Nose Tackle (6’4″ 280 lbs. listed), he has developed into a decent backup option for the Steelers since being signed as an Undrafted Free Agent in 2010. Defensive Line Coach John Mitchell appears to be very high on McLendon, and seems to believe that he is primed to step up his game in 2012.
Not to be completely outdone by their Defensive Line comrades, Pittsburgh’s Linebacking Corps has also received an influx of young talent over recent seasons as well. Because Inside Linebacker Dont’a Hightower was not selected by Pittsburgh in the 1st Round of the Draft last week, Stevenson Sylvester was given a terrific chance and vote of confidence by the franchise to step up and help out more at the “Buck” Inside Linebacker position. In spite of the fact that the savvy veteran Larry Foote will assume James Farrior’s old starting role, Sylvester will be his top backup and will be asked to step in if injuries or Foote ends up being ineffective at the “Buck” spot. Linebackers Coach Keith Butler seems to have quite a bit of faith in Sylvester and his ability to develop into the answer at the position in the future.
While he might be Lawrence Timmons’ back-up at the weakside “Mack” spot for a few years, Rookie Sean Spence should figure to be a big contributor to this Defense until stepping up into a starting role. Spence had a fantastically productive career at Miami (FL) in college, and like most former Canes Linebackers displayed toughness, a nose for the football, and great overall athletic ability which made him an attractive option to the Steelers organization. Spence might be a Special Teamer early as he learns the Defense as a whole., but his skills in pass-coverage should earn him a spot in passing down sub-packages before he assumes a full time starting role.
As for the young guys on the Outside, Jason Worilds did a decent job in spot starting duty last season, and set career highs in Tackles (36) and Sacks (3.0) in 2011. Worilds will again assume the top backup spot behind Deebo and Woodley, and if injuries strike again, he must be ready to take over and produce. Behind Worilds and competing for playing time this season and beyond will be 2nd year man Chris Carter and two Undrafted Free Agents in the forms of hometown Brandon Lindsey and Adrien Robinson who are looking to make the roster. While these three are former college Defensive Ends and have almost zero experience on Defense at the pro level between them, at least one or two of them must step up and prove themselves as capable reserves. The talent is there with all three, and if there is anybody at the pro level which can develop solid starters at the Linebacker position it is Keith Butler that can.
Ike Taylor will still remain the starter in 2012, but there are a group of young Cornerbacks which will look to step up this season and beyond. With his 2012 season being his contract year, Keenan Lewis will be looking to build off of his successes in 2011 and entrench himself as a starter across from Taylor this season.
Now that William Gay is in Arizona, the starting job opposite Taylor will be Lewis’ to lose after the 2011 season saw Keenan finally turn the corner in his up-and-down career as he recorded career highs in Tackles (35), Passes Defended (6), and record his first Interception in the Nickelback role. Lewis however cannot rest on his laurels after his season of steady improvement, because two hungry youngsters will be looking to take his job away.
Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown were two of 2011’s nicest surprises, and both did a nice job during their first campaigns with the club. Allen chipped in nicely in Defensive sub packages last season as a Dimeback, played well on Special Teams, and figures to help out even more this season. Curtis Brown, a player Mike Tomlin complimented and described as playing like his hair was on fire, teamed with Allen on the Special Teams units, and will look to help out at Corner in sub packages this season.
Both Brown and Allen are large (Brown: 6′ 185 lbs., Allen 6’1″ 196 lbs.) and physical Corners, both can Tackle and play in run support, both should transition well into Zone schemes, and with time under Defensive Backs Coach Carnell Lake, should make major strides in the next two seasons. With Lewis, Allen, and Brown, Pittsburgh has set itself up nicely as they attempt to settle the situation at Cornerback in the coming seasons.
Will all of these players eventually pan out for the Steelers? We will just have to wait and see. Still, the amount of young and developing talent that the Defensive side of the football continues to add to it, the better chance the Steelers have to transition from the success they had in the 2000’s and continue the dominant tradition in this current decade and down the road. Good teams never rebuild, they simply re-load, and the Steelers appear to be in the process of doing the same thing now on the Defensive side of the ball. Working these youngsters in over the next few seasons will be crucial to their development, and hopefully pay big dividends for everybody involved in the end. I for one am intrigued to see how all of this turns out, and am anxious to see how smoothly the transition will ultimately be.
Is age a factor on this Defense? It sure is, and I will be the first to admit it. Guys like Polamalu, Hampton, and Harrison cannot play forever, and solid starters like Ike Taylor, Ryan Clark, Keisel, and Foote are no spring chickens as well. Yet for those like Warren Sapp who have not noticed, the Steelers have done a fine job of putting pieces in place to make these terrific players’ departure easier to sustain.
Sorry to say Warren, but it’s not “over” for this Defense. Sure, the names might be changing here and there, and the transition period is in the present, but it is not “over.”
Stats Courtesy of: http://www.pro-football-reference.com/
Height/Weight Measurements: http://www.steelers.com/team/roster.html