I think everyone can remember the madness last year when Warren Sapp implied that the Pittsburgh Steelers were too old to be considered an elite team. The Steelers did a great job of proving Sapp wrong both with the teams\’ overall on field performance and the way that the younger backups stepped up thru injuries. So just as the offseason passes us steadily by and we almost have that negative implication out of our minds, it pops back up. I was reading a power ranking on NFL.com and was maligned to find that they had the Steelers listed as the 13th ranked team. Not bad for a 12-4 team that has lost only a few players, has many up and comers and looks poised to address some key needs in this draft. I think this rank is bananas and while the dumb super-fan in me thinks the Steelers are #1, I could rationalize really anything in the top 6.
The explanation for ranking the team so low was due to the fact that the core of the team is getting older. Firstly I’d like to explain that at many positions on the field I’d rather have a player that is right around 30. As much as I love young guns because of their unknown potential, 30 is a good age. They’re not so old that they are dropping off physically yet, and have a wealth of experience. This experience is a profound tool. It can be as simple as knowing the tendencies of Joe Flacco, or as deep as knowing that for a specific blitz call to play inside tight coverage on a slant happy receiver. I like DBs, LBs and OL that have some experience. RB and WR are positions where youth is a commodity and the Steelers have it. Veteran leadership is still needed and the re-signing of Jerricho Cotchery provides that.
The easy place to start is the defense. Up front, Ziggy Hood was drafted only 3 years ago and Cameron Heyward was just a rookie last season. Brett Keisel is expected to be a big contributor at 10 years pro and Casey Hampton should return from injury and start at 11 years pro. Steve McLendon is a 2 year guy and a rookie will certainly be in the mix. At linebacker, Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley are entering their prime at 5 years pro. Larry Foote and James Harrison are nearing the end of their careers at 31 and 33 years old, while Stevenson Sylvester and Jason Worilds still have a chance to prove their value and are both only 2 year pros. At defensive back Ike Taylor is a 9 year guy, while Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu have 10 and 9 years of experience respectively. Keenan Lewis (when he signs his tender), Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown are all youngsters.
To analyze that list, about half the starters are over 30. Fortunately many of them are right around 30 and should have a good 4-6 years left, and only a few are nearing their end. Many of those positions have options for backups, especially considering this years’ draft. I think that the Steelers are getting very close to a difficult situation, but I don\’t think the outlook is grim yet. I can see Polamalu, Taylor and Keisel playing possibly another 4 seasons. Clark, Foote and Harrison are getting near the end of the road though. I can easily see them playing at least 2 more seasons, but it\’s important to begin drafting replacements now.
Offense is an easy story. While Ben Roethlisberger should have at least another 5 good years ahead of him, his biggest enemy is himself. His rugged style of play might lead to injuries no matter who\’s protecting him. His weapons are young and numerous. Mike Wallace and Rashard Mendenhall are question marks right now for different reasons but Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Isaac Redman are all young and have bright futures. Offensive line is a big question mark, but all of the answers so far are young. Marcus Gilbert had a pretty good rookie campaign and Maurkice Pouncey is a perennial Pro Bowler. There are a few stand-ins at guard that aren\’t long term solutions and Willie Colon, who is 29, can hold down tackle for a while if injury problems with him are over.
After analyzing the age of the Steelers I think that ranking them at 13 is an insult. I can understand a lower ranking citing possible offensive line inadequacies or a need for a development time so as a new offensive coordinator\’s system can take off. I can\’t take the fact that the Steelers are “too old”. I believe they need to adapt to a new style of NFL that is pass driven and speed hungry, but they are in a position to do just that.