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Starkey: Steelers must rebuild 'Stained Curtain'

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LaMarr Woodley awaits the snap against the Jets on Sept. 16, 2012.

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Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014, 10:33 p.m.
 

If you think of it Thursday, take a moment to reflect on the three-year anniversary of a most lamentable passing: the death of the Steelers defense.

Nothing has been the same since Feb. 6, 2011, when Aaron Rodgers tore apart a once-feared unit on his way to Super Bowl XLV MVP.

A lot of us — notably the Steelers themselves — lived in denial the next few years. We should have listened to Warren Sapp, who identified the body after the first game of the following season.

Sapp analyzed the Steelers as such, focusing mainly on their defense: “Old, slow, and it's over.”

The Steelers haven't won a playoff game since. Their defense has faded and frayed like an aging tapestry. By this past season, it had decayed to the point where a new nickname seemed appropriate: The Stained Curtain.

This team has participated in one playoff game since 2010. It didn't go so well. Tim Tebow passed for 316 yards in what surely will go down as the most prolific performance of his brief and sorry NFL career.

The Steelers and many of their fans spent the two post-Super Bowl XLV years hiding behind the NFL's bogus yardage standard for “total defense.”

“We're still No. 1!”

Thing is, they weren't flipping fields or quarterbacks anymore. They weren't scaring anyone. Not even Matt Flynn.

The truth no longer can be denied. The numbers are painfully revealing:

• After leading the NFL with 48 sacks in 2010, the Steelers slipped to 17th, 15th and finally 25th.

• After finishing fifth in interceptions with 21, they have totaled 31 in three seasons.

• After finishing tied for fifth with 14 fumble recoveries in 2010, they have not finished above 15th.

• Their once-impenetrable rush defense plummetedto 21st in the league in 2013. It couldn't even keep up with Ryan Tannehill.

Other than yardage-based figures, the only thing the Steelers have led the league in lately is complaints about the rules changes. The implication being, how are we supposed to play our intimidating brand of football if the league keeps cracking down on head shots?

Here's how: Watch the Seattle Seahawks. That defense is now the one by which all are measured, and it is so far ahead of the Steelers' that you'd need the Hubble Telescope to see it.

The Seahawks are fast, deep and violent. They have role players who'd start for most teams, including the Steelers.

So what happened? What or whom killed the Steelers defense?

The ill-informed want to indict coordinator Dick LeBeau. But you can't blame the chef when the food's gone stale.

The culprits are poor drafts, poor talent evaluation, age and injury.

Start with the drafts. General manager Kevin Colbert, coach Mike Tomlin and their scouts have failed. It's that simple. Their charge was to rebuild an aging defense through the draft, and once you sift through all the Thaddeus Gibsons, Alameda Ta'amus and Crezdon Butlers, you find precious few real players.

The Steelers have no defensive players left from their 2012 draft, save for injured linebacker Sean Spence. The jury remains very much out on last year's first pick, Jarvis Jones, who was brought in to harass quarterbacks but finished with one sack. Twenty-nine rookies had more.

The minute I saw Jones in a jersey, I had one thought: Where's the rest of him?

Another first-round pick, Ziggy Hood (2009), could safely be designated a bust. Depth everywhere is scarce. Things have gotten so bad that the Steelers routinely recycle below-average Arizona Cardinals cornerbacks.

Now look at some of the personnel decisions. Colbert and Tomlin allowed cornerback Keenan Lewis to walk without an offer while retaining Ike Taylor and his exorbitant cap hits. Nose tackle Steve McLendon was signed to a three-year deal before anybody realized that Lloyd McClendon probably has a better body type for the position.

The list goes on.

Is the worst behind them? Nobody can say, though the Steelers could begin to reverse the trend by making the right decisions with the likes of Jason Worilds (keep him), LaMarr Woodley (cut him), Ryan Clark (bye-bye) and Taylor (take less or leave) and by finding some immediate impact players in the draft.

Has anybody told them that rookies are allowed to contribute to NFL defenses?

No, really, it's legal and everything. New England Patriots rookies accounted for 11.5 of their sacks and seven of their interceptions.

The Steelers' cupboard isn't bare by any means. Lawrence Timmons is great. Cam Heyward is on his way. Troy Polamalu can still play.

Jones showed flashes. Worilds showed more than that, although he could become another Lewis-type casualty, which would leave the Steelers stuck with Woodley, who only plays about calf — I mean half — the time.

Best case, they're a long ways from Seattle.

What a sad anniversary.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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