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.