Steelers Defense: No Escaping Age, Injuries, & Lack of Talent

By Jeremy Hritz

Five games are in the history books in this young but aging NFL season, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are not just battered and demoralized, they are a very real 2-3, a sign that does not bode well to the Steelers this season.

Following last season’s Wild Card loss to the Denver Broncos, there were several reasons attributed to the team’s loss and ineffectiveness on defense, one of them being age and one of them being injuries. Five games into the 2012 season, age and injuries are again at the forefront of the Steelers woes; however, there is another component that is being overlooked when assessing this team. A few days ago, Tribune Review writer Mark Kaboly made the statement that possibly the Steelers are not that good, and he has a point worthy of consideration when looking at the defense. And when evaluating the 2012 season in light of age, injuries, and either lack of talent/development, the Steelers defensive performance may be explainable.

Firstly, consider all of the players who are nearing their final days as NFL players that are starters on the Steelers defense: Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel, Larry Foote, James Harrison, Ike Taylor, Troy Polamalu, and Ryan Clark. While Foote and Clark are exempt from this discussion since they have played admirably this season, Hampton, Keisel Harrison, Taylor, and Polamalu have been less than stellar in 2012. Hampton and Keisel have been getting no push whatsoever and have not been able to shed offensive lineman to make plays in the running game. Additionally, they appear slow and without explosiveness. Harrison has played decently in his two games back, but he has not been the dominant presence that made him the Defensive Player of the Year in 2008, and the likelihood of him returning to that form this season at 34 years old is not very good. While the jury is still out on the body of work he will put together this season, his explosiveness has not been what it has been in previous years. Taylor’s struggles from last season’s debacle in Denver have continued, and he too, appears a step slower, resulting in his clutching and grabbing to prevent big pass plays that result in pass interference calls. Combine his declining ability to cover with his reputation of not making interceptions, and he has become an easy target of the average quarterbacks and wide receivers that have abused him this year. Imagine what Eli Manning will make of Taylor. While Polamalu has not played much this year because of injury, the time that he has spent on the field was nothing extraordinary. Even if Polamalu returns this year, there is no guarantee he will be able to stay healthy, let alone play at a high level.

While these players were once the cornerstones of a stout and dominating Steelers defense, it is clear that this is no longer the case. It happens, and it is part of the cyclical nature of the NFL. To expect these players to flash like they did in 2008 or even in 2010 is unrealistic.

When you think of dominating defensive players in the NFL, names like J.J. Watt, Patrick Willis, Clay Matthews, and Haloti Ngata come to mind. The Steelers haven’t shown that they have any game changers like this who single-handedly influence the outcome of the game like these players can.

Then, there are the injuries. David DeCastro, Harrison, Polamalu, LaMarr Woodley, Maurkice Pouncey, Marcus Gilbert, Jason Worilds, Stevenson Sylvester, Sean Spence, and David Johnson have all experienced injuries that have impacted their contributions to the team this season. Not having some of the most significant players on the field severely limits what a team can do on offense and defense and can make a team a reduced version of itself. Injuries also disrupt continuity which is essential for building team chemistry and the ability to effectively communicate on the field.

The final component to consider here is the one raised by Kaboly, which is that the Steelers may just not be that good. Nowhere else on the team is this more apparent than on the defensive side of the ball. And while we can explain the play of the veterans from the age and injury perspective, then how do we explain the underwhelming efforts of this team’s youngsters? Sure Worilds has three sacks, but they do not call to mind the physicality and explosiveness that a young Joey Porter did when he got his opportunity on the outside, nor that of Harrison or Woodley. The same goes for Chris Carter. And then you have Sylvester who hasn’t even been good enough to get a few snaps at middle backer. What about Ziggy Hood, Cameron Heyward, and Steve McLendon? Hood has been getting the most snaps out of the three, and he too appears to lack explosiveness as he gets pushed off of the ball too easily. Heyward has not gotten enough snaps to make a fair assessment, and it appeared that McLendon proved himself in the preseason and in his limited play this year, yet he continues to sit unexplainably behind Hampton. And while it is difficult to assess Cortez Allen and Keenan Lewis since they have not had the benefit of an effective pass rush, they have not been outstanding this season either.

Maybe Kaboly is right. Maybe this team is just not that good. What other evidence is needed than consistent poor play against what are considered the worst teams in the NFL in Oakland and Tennessee?

When you factor in age, injuries, and average and below average players waiting in the wings on the defensive side of the ball, the result is an average, or less than average team, which is what the Steelers are proving to be in 2012. While there are still eleven games to go in the season, the chances that they can overcome three losses in the AFC without even playing the likes of Baltimore and Cincinnati yet are unfortunately very slim. There has to be a drastic improvement in the play of this defense if they want to even have a chance at the playoffs, and there is no reason to believe after five games that this can happen. The Steelers could be on their way to a sub-500 season and a subsequent “cleaning of the house” this coming offseason.

The only hope that could save this season is if Ben Roethlisberger, who is already playing well, plays out of his mind and carries the team into the post-season. Yet with a porous offensive line and no running game, that appears, too, unrealistic.

It’s not a matter of desire with this team, they are doing the best that they can. Unfortunately, it appears that this year, their best will simply not be good enough.

  • Mike.H

    Dave: Does Ta’mau’s contract contain criminal clause that’d void, reduce contract value based on criminal activity?

  • alex

    yes, a depressing discussion given the Steelers winning history…we are only at game six, but how many times can a team need a challenge to prove themselves worthy and then not perform…this is the NFL and when you are the Pittsburgh Steelers and also 0-3 at home, that just gives the rest of the league motivation…!

  • Mike.H

    don’t want to give false hope but every remaining game on Ravens schedule not easy games. Faint hope?

  • Joe Stitt

    I was honestly more worried at the beginning of last season. The best team in the NFL doesn’t win the Super Bowl anymore. If they can hang around at or just below .500 and sneak in the playoffs, this is a dangerous team. Keep Ben upright, add in DeCastro and a hopefully healthy Mendenhall at that point, and you’ve got a dynamic offense. Not that anything outside of play calling and communication is the issue on that side of the ball. The offense will only get better as the season goes on with Haley and the team adapting to him.

    The issue is obviously the defense, but if the playmakers are there when it counts it’s anybody’s game. Watch some of the early Giants games last year. Terrible. But they got hot. The Steelers have the talent and experience on both sides of the ball to make something like that happen.

    The sky hasn’t fallen yet, and I certainly don’t want to turn into New York where we’re demanding the head of one of the best coaches in the NFL on a stick. The Steelers can’t be the class of the AFC every season, but that doesn’t mean they can’t put up a good fight. They’ve hung in every game, and sooner or later luck will be on their side. Seasons don’t end in October unless you’re the Browns.

  • Tim

    While it’s very true we’re blessed with great seasons year after year and are overdue for bad season, let’s not jump to conclusions. Since 2004, the Steelers have started 6-2 or better 7 out of 8 years. 7 OUT OF 8 YEARS they’ve been 6-2, on pace for a 12-4 year, and a top 5 or 6 team at the halfway mark.

    Not every playoff team takes that path. Not every champion takes that path. Look at the Giants last year. OR, look at the 2009 Steelers. What if we started off the way they finished. Blown 4th quarter leads to teams we “should beat”. They looked HORRIBLE against Oakland, KC, even the Browns during that stretch. Maybe those games are coming early for the Steelers this time. It’s week 6 out of 17, the way we played in the first 5 games are not necessarily the way we will finish.

    I think most of us can agree that the main problem isn’t a lack of talent, but a lack of execution. Wallace and Brown can play better. Ben’s been good but can play better. Ike Taylor probably cannot play worse. And Woodley, Pouncey and Troy all can get healthier. We were the #1 defense last year in Points Allowed and Yards Allowed / Game. No way we suddenly drop to #25. Let’s have some faith, and when or if blowout start coming out way (ie 2003), then we can write this team off.

  • Brendon Glad

    Good article. But as we hope for Ben to carry the load, the really frustrating thing is that the better Ben plays, the worse the other 2 units play. It almost goes game to game. Drives me insane. So I guess if we want the defense to play better, we need Ben to go 14-30 for 170 with zero td. His best seasons were 2007 2009 and 2012. And 2008 and 2010 were 2 of his 3 worst. Throw out 06 and an annoying pattern emerges

  • Brendon Glad

    I agree with you. I believe this still can be an excellent team. That may be a bad thing though. Seems like the 2005 and 2008 teams I had little faith in at all. The one thing I HAVE noticed though is that the Steelers don’t necessarily follow the mantra of “health makes wealth” many of their very best seasons have been in years where they were decimated by injuries…as long as they are early, not late. So if they can hang in there, 6 division games remain to turn it around.

  • Ahmad

    At this point I’m all for letting Ben go no huddle every drive and score as many points as possible because defense can’t protect a lead anymore.

  • moderatelysane

    Nice article, and I tend to agree. We can’t say it’s only 5 games when that is effectively 1/3 of the season. There has been a consistent lack of a difference-maker on defense. Part of this is due to Troy being out. Remember the last time we lost Troy for an extended period? We repeatedly blew 4th quarter leads against mediocre teams. On top of that, when Troy’s in, he’s not the Troy of old, plain and simple. There is not an emerging superstar on this defense. McClendon needs to start, for sure, but it’s not clear whether he’s a star. Ziggy is a break even at best. He has had plenty of starts to show he’s a game-changer–he isn’t. The young LB are just depth, not stars. The young CB may be great, but appear to be just good.

    Let’s also not forget that it is much more difficult to defend in today’s NFL than even 5 years ago. The game is changing toward more offense. There are very few shutdown defenses now. I think our D is not set up to be a shutdown D any more from a personnel and a coordinator standpoint. We need a fresh perspective on scheming for today’s NFL and a couple of new superstars, starting with LB and SS.

    Offense is a great offense that is not executing well right now. There’s no question that we’re loaded on offense, and Haley has the guts and ability to use it. Once they start to gel, look out. We just have to have a more adequate D and not too many losses when the offense figures it out. I think it’s an 8-8 year with maybe a playoff appearance. Definitely time to retool that defense and we can’t be afraid to start the youngsters next year. Forget giving them a few years to learn the system; get the studs in there!

  • Shannon Stephenson

    Mark Kaboly must be reading my statements made on another Pittsburgh website because Ive said the same things before the season started about us depending on our over the hillers to carry us 1 more year and hoping for our sub par new players to some how become better…outside of Woodley we have not seen a playmaker from the Tomlin regime…hope that changes fast.