Thirtysomething: A Look At The Steeler Defenders Nearing The End

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.

  • alex

    some much veteran turnover the last three years, how will the kids respond?…if it werent for the failed 08′ and 09′ class, i might not be as worried…and then Big Ben, Woodley, Timmons, and Brown are due and increased hit of $21M in 2014…whats a steelers fan to do…

  • Stephen Dale

    all five of these guys have been terrific Steelers and it will tough to see them go ; however, the crisis for this team is whether there are quality replacements for the five. So far, there appears to be a steep drop off in talented reserves.

  • NW86

    It’s funny how we can all watch the same games and see things so differently. I think pretty much the opposite on everyone except Ike. I think the one who is definitely heading into his last season is Troy. Not only is he rarely healthy, but even when he was healthy in 2012, he didn’t quite have the same explosiveness, and he relies more on that than any of the other players. He’s also set to make $8.25M in 2014, and the Steelers certainly can’t afford to pay him that. I think he’ll be asked to take a pay cut, and he’ll choose to retire instead (he has always said he didn’t want to play until his body gave out).
    Clark and Keisel are both coming off one of their better seasons in 2012. They’re both in the last year of their contracts and may retire after 2013, but if they want to be back and are willing to play for a little less money, I think there is still room for them both in 2014. Though they may both decide to retire instead.
    Foote just signed a 3 year deal and there is no one ready to replace him. He’ll be back in 2014 and if Spence doesn’t fully recover, they’ll draft an ILB in the early rounds next year to serve as his apprentice in 2014.
    Ike may have to take a pay cut, but he’s still the best CB on the team and should be back too.

  • David Edward

    With ’13 being the last year of their contracts, it’s probably the last year for Clark and Keisel as Steelers. The development of Golden and Heyward this year will go a long way in determining if that’s true or not. Heyward would be considered a major bust if he can’t take over for Keisel by ’14. Golden has a long way to go too, but another year of working with Lake should help him make major strides. Ike and Troy have two years left and big cap numbers, so they are targets to be cap casualties in ’14 or at least be asked to take pay cuts. Of course, the Steelers leverage will depend on who’s ready to be next man up. Shamarko was drafted to be Troy’s successor, but he’d have to progress more quickly than recent DBs to be a starter in year 2. Of course, Troy’s health may force the issue. At CB, it will depend on how good Hawthorne turns out to be, how Allen handles being a starter, and if they’d be willing to let Gay be the starter for a year. Either way, Ike will have to take a cut or be cut in ’14. Foote has no successor at the moment, but the two guys with promise are McFadden and Williams. If one of those guys gets to play a lot this year (maybe due to injury) and shows he’s capable as a starter then maybe Foote is gone, otherwise look for him again in ’14 at least until one of those guys is ready.

  • Bob Loblaw

    I think there’s some hope that Rolle might have been brought in to phase Foote out. He had a pretty good rookie year in 2011, but it looks like he might have lost favor in Philly’s regime change at defensive coordinator. He’s supposed to be good in coverage, so if he can pick up the playbook we might at the very least see him coming on for Foote in obvious passing situations.

  • steeltown

    Would love to see all these guys back for ONE more season… pending..
    1. If Troy has a good (healthy) season in ’13
    2. Whether Golden/Shamarko/Cam Heyward make a huge jump.
    3. Cortez Allen shows he can be the Ike Taylor reborn (and Hawthorne shows some promise in his rookie year)

  • steeltown

    Agreed for the most part..
    Love Keisel, and would love to have him back on a one year deal in ’14, but it is time for Cam Heyward to be given full time starter snaps, its the only way to see if he’s capable. Ike Taylor will most likely have to take a paycut, I just don’t see them making him a cap casualty altogether, Hawthorne is too green and C.Brown hasn’t turned the corner, they may need Ike in 2014, guess we’ll see how all the young guys progress this year. As for Foote, I agree, unless Foote is seriously injured (and McFadden or Williams have a breakout season) he’ll be back in 2014 no doubt, there is no immediate successor and even if they draft one he’ll play under his wing for a year. Clark I think may be due for a one year extension (barring injury) I could totally see 2014 having the same depth chart (Clark/Golden and Polamalu/Thomas) unless, Golden and Shark make huge strides.. I would welcome Clark for another season