By Jeremy Hritz
One of the most overused arguments regarding the decline of the Pittsburgh Steelers over the last couple of seasons, including the approaching one, is the age of many of their defensive stars. True, several of the players on defense are well into their thirties, but how much can we expect that to negatively impact their play? Let’s take a look at those players under scrutiny because of father time heading into the 2013 season.
Ryan Clark – Current Age: 33, Birthday: October 12, 1979
By the time October rolls around, Clark will be 34. Clark is a player that is known more for his physicality than he is for his speed or his coverage abilities. This past season, Clark recorded 102 total tackles and two interceptions, and he did not miss a game due to injury, except for the opener against Denver that he sat out because of his sickle cell trait. He is durable and provides a spark to the defense with his ability to deliver the big hit. The Steelers need Clark to show up in run support and to make receivers think twice when catching the football, and I don’t expect a decline in his ability to do just that in 2013. More than likely though, this is Clark’s last season in Pittsburgh, and maybe his last season in the NFL altogether. If his recent media appearances tell us anything, it is that he is prepping for his life after the game.
Larry Foote – Current Age: 32, Birthday: June 12, 1980
Foote will be 33 when the Steelers kick off training camp, and while he has been a solid player in his time with the team, he is a question mark on the defense in 2013. Foote fulfilled his responsibilities on the inside last season, but did not make the splash contributions on defense that are needed to create a dominant unit. There is no reason to believe that Foote will be able to improve on his performance being another year older, and his ability to cover the pass is a concern. The Steelers are hoping that one of their youngsters can emerge ready to take over for Foote, but the likelihood of that happening is slim. It looks to be status quo from Foote next season, who like Clark, I do not expect to return in 2014.
Brett Keisel – Current Age: 34, Birthday: September 19, 1978
Three days before the Steelers play the Chicago Bears, Keisel will turn 35, and will be the elder saint of the Steel Curtain. Keisel has become a fixture on the defense and a fan favorite, but his time too is coming to a close. Keisel will more than likely start this year on the right side, but there were times last season where he was pushed around too easily. There were also times when Keisel made a big play, and the result was an uneven performance. Uneven will not help the Steelers improve on their 8-8 2012, so much more will be expected from Keisel, who like Clark and Foote, is more than likely playing his final season with the team.
Troy Polamalu – Current Age: 32, Birthday: April 19, 1981
I am a firm believer that if Polamalu stays healthy, he can play effectively and explosively for two to three more years. When healthy, Polamalu is outstanding, and injuries, not a decline in ability, are the reason that he has been quiet for the past two seasons. If he gets his conditioning right and if he can come into the season healthy, two big “ifs,” he can regain his place in the NFL as the best safety. He can also help to improve a defense that is in need of his play making ability. I am expecting a rebound season from Troy this year, but if he gets injured again, it may be the end. His health will be the key to not only this season, but also his future with the team.
Ike Taylor – Current Age: 33, Birthday: May 5, 1980
Ike just doesn’t seem to age on the playing field, though his numerical age says otherwise. While his play suffered at the beginning of this past season, drawing much criticism and calls for benching (I was one of them), he responded by putting together one of his best season as a Steeler before getting injured. Though he was injured last season, if there is one player on the defense in his thirties that fans should not be concerned with, it is Taylor. His conditioning, consistency, and passion for the game make him one of the most reliable Steelers, and while he may get beat from time to time, or have a bad game, he always makes up for his failures. Expect Ike to be hungrier than ever in 2013.