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LeBeau, Steelers Turn Eyes Forward On Defense


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.

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About Matthew Marczi

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.
  • Bill

    Demise really caused by failure of the draft picks such as Ziggy Hood, several linebackers, the nose tackle with the DUI, etc., loss of Keenan Lewis, etc. Nobody to fill the shoes of the greats who departed.

  • Virdin Barzey

    Agreed. Those draft picks did not work out causing us be where we are at. It’s incredible piece of coaching to be 8-8 and no losing season understanding what really happened.

  • blackandgoldBullion

    Give them a couple years and they will be great again. I trust the philosophy. Anybody can miss of draft picks as it’s not a perfect science. Remember the big picture and have faith.

  • ATL96STEELER

    Philosophy? I think you underestimate just how great those players were…several of those guys including Troy were once every 10 yr type talents on DEF…consider how long it took to transition from the 4 SB team DEF to Cowher’s 1st real SB caliber team.

    Individually maybe only one HOF caliber player this time (Hampton)…but collectively, in the FA era, it could be 10+ years before we see another front 7 like that one.

  • ATL96STEELER

    I think it’s unreasonable to expect great players to replace great players…not when you’re picking at the bottom of the draft for nearly a decade.

    Lewis…I would love to have him now, but I think all the extensions of those great players meant that you’re going to lose some players to FA.

  • Eric MacLaurin

    I think demise is a bit dramatic. The defense hasn’t been that bad.

    I think they made a mistake letting Lewis go, but him and a healthy Spence would have been enough to avoid the dropoff.

  • ATL96STEELER

    Lewis…I tend to agree, but he was such a late bloomer that Ike was extended and that didn’t leave much cap space…not for the kind of money NO offered anyway…the drop off was coming when the DL (namely Hampton and Smith) could not be replicated.

  • steeltown

    You make a valid point. I think we have some very good DE prospects, but there’s no substitute for the great Casey Hampton.

  • ATL96STEELER

    DE…we do. Probably a yr or 2 away from both being top shelf at the same time but my point was players make the system.

    That so called genius up in NE I think is finding out that systems are important, but players are too…letting proven vets go early on DEF for draft picks has kept them competitive, but they haven’t won any rings lately either.

  • Bill

    If you don’t expect to get a great player or two in the draft over a period of time then what you’re really subscribing to is mediocrity. Haywood may be breaking out but what other impact defensive player have you seen come aboard since Timmons? Lewis should not have been lost; it was the result of poor cap management. Many great players come out of the low rounds or even FA. You just have to know how to find them.

  • chris ward

    Some real tough players to replace. Farrior, Foote, Hampton, Keisel, Smith, Harrison, had great years in Pittsburgh.

  • Jason

    I think Aaron Smith is much more deserving of a HOF mention than Hampton. I remember Hoke replacing Hampton for almost an entire season and not missing a beat going 15-1. We are still struggling to replace Smith.

  • ATL96STEELER

    I don’t want to debate that, because you’re picking one season, not a big enough sample imo…but you would have to admit the DEF has not been the same since Hampton left.

    FWIW…I hope they both make it.

  • Jason

    I would love to see that too but I don’t think either had the stats to be considered legit contenders for HOF consideration. Us Steeler fans know the value of both players but those on the outside I don’t think realize how important they were to the defense because eating up 2 blockers so Farrior can run down the ball carrier doesn’t show up on the stat sheet.

  • The Dude

    People forget how impossible it was to run on the Steelers in Kimo’s last season then when the front three was Keisel, Hampton, and Smith. You just didn’t move those three allowing the likes of Porter and Farrior to get after it. Highly underrated D-line. Pete King of SI recognized Aaron Smith as one of the best DEs in that era, but few others did. I think Casey had a HOF career, and I would vote Smith in too, but I am a biased Steelers fan. We’ll see if Heyward and Tuitt can get us back on track.

  • http://www.reverbnation.com/JohnnyLoose Johnny Loose

    If you want a good idea of what is to come in the next 5 seasons in Pittsburgh, pay attention to this season. A lot of questions will be answered in 2014. This Steeler fan is excited about our future.

  • Steelers@2010

    Bad Draft Picks, Poor Drafting of DB’s and DE’s. Why don’t they really tell the story of what took place. Yes, they had great players, however, the Steelers have had great players in the past as well. They always manage to draft great players regardless of where they picked in April. Poor Coaching and Front Office Decisions led the team being 8-8 for consecutive seasons. And lets not forget the Scouting Department too. It has been one huge Mess over the past 5yrs.

  • Eric MacLaurin

    Were you born in 2010 or just skipped the meds?

  • 2443scott

    well for as much was and has been talked about last years 8-8 season they missed playoffs by skin their teeth ….you can blame the def of age and the salary cap but you have to talk about injuries the last 2 seasons as well guys going down left and right …i am glad the talk is out there by the coaches that they tried to hold on to the vets to long it means they finaly know its time to reload the team and add new plays by faster players most teams the steelers play know what they get when they play the steelers …now its diff because there is more speed and more choices for the coaches to use on both sides of the ball ..

  • charles

    Truth be told, I give LeBeau his due, but, the 3-4 is a suspect defense. Great Ds dominate the line of scrimmage. That is hard to do with 3 linemen.
    While Haley seems to have the offense as good as I have ever seen (since 68) Offenses haven’t been winning SBs, ask Brady or Manning..
    We need D, we need Dline dominance, we need Arnfeldt, Williams, McKullers or Tuitt to become forces to contend with.
    It is that simple.

  • steelster

    they missed on a lot of picks in the 1980’s, I mean a lot.

  • Steelers@2010

    No need for cheap shots, we are all just fans expressing our own opinion. Individuals like yourself need to get a life beyond talking about the Steelers. Calm Down!

  • Eric MacLaurin

    You’re on a steelers board with a post listing a half dozen, poorly informed insults of the Steelers.

    You shouldn’t expect broad agreement and praise for your assessment. Questions about your age and mental capacity and on the tame side and might be relevant.

  • Steelers@2010

    My comments as a fan are towards the Steelers and the Organization based on the column’s that are written on this website. I can and have respected other’s and their comments posted, although half the time I don’t agree with them. I’m a Die Hard Fan, I’m just smart enough to know the Organization, as great as I think they are, they aren’t perfect. Unlike some fans that are ignorant and caught up in the hype, fail to accept reality sometimes.

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