For an organization so intrinsically built upon and invested in its tradition, the Pittsburgh Steelers are facing a hard reality after suffering two consecutive non-winning seasons for the first time in over a decade.
Not the simple reality that they haven’t been able to live up to their own standards in recent years, but rather the fact that they’ve well and truly reached the end of an era, perhaps one that they tried to prolong beyond its expiration date.
No defense over the course of the past decade has sustained the consistent level of success that Dick LeBeau’s unit has experienced during the Steelers’ most recent Super Bowl era.
But even if Pittsburgh manages to revive its Super Bowl aspirations, it will be with a very different unit.
In fact, outside of the secondary, the entire starting defense has been replaced since Super Bowl XLIII at the end of the 2008 season. The only additional carryover from the last Super Bowl appearance in 2010 would be Lawrence Timmons, who became a starter in 2009.
Gone are James Farrior and Larry Foote patrolling the middle of the defense, and Casey Hampton anchoring the defensive line in the trenches.
Gone, so too, are the Pro Bowl edge rushers in James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley. The longtime bookends at defensive end, Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel, squeezed about all they could out of their bodies into their mid-30s before the Steelers were forced to part ways.
But they did so not without understanding their privilege of maintaining such consistency on defense for as long as they had. LeBeau reflected on this notion recently:
“We were very, very fortunate that a lot of our players played a long and wonderful career, played excellently for us, but in a matter of days, years, ticks of the clock, you’re going to have different people. We were holding off as long as we could because those guys were very great players and they are difficult to replace”.
There’s a reason that so many of these players were mentioned by name during LeBeau’s Hall of Fame induction speech. It was, without question, a remarkable unit—so remarkable that it was hard to accept that it had run its course.
But championships have a way of buying yourself some extra time. This group wouldn’t have stuck together nearly as long without the hardware to attest to its abilities.
That grace period is now nearly over, with essentially just Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu remaining. But Taylor is in what is expected to be his final season, while Polamalu is coming off a Pro Bowl season.
The last two years have been especially hard on the championship defense of the 00s, but it was a necessary toughness with an eye toward building for the next era of success:
We got a first-round pick last year [with Jarvis Jones], a first-round pick this year [in Ryan Shazier], and we lost some wonderful, All-Pro players. It’s accurate to say we are in transition, but we’re certainly further down the road than when Farrior and Smith and Casey had to retire. The whole thing has been a process of changing the personnel. Yes, we’re still in transition, but we’re nowhere near where we were when all those guys had to leave.
It may not be realistic to expect this defense to live up to the championship-caliber performances of this most recent generation. After all, it’s rare to even be able to hold a unit together for as long as the Steelers had in this age of the game.
But they are no longer deceiving themselves, and understand that it’s time for the next generation spearheading by the likes of Shazier, Jones, and Cameron Heyward.