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Steelers defense wants to be 'legendary'

| Monday, Aug. 27, 2012, 7:50 p.m.
Steelers linebacker Chris Carter plays for James Harrison against the Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium Aug. 25, 2012. Chaz Palla | Tribune Review

There are alterations all around them, yet nothing has changed for the old-reliable Steelers' defensive regulars. They don't expect to be good, they expect to be the best. And they certainly anticipate being better than last season, when they were No. 1 statistically in the NFL.

“We are striving to be legendary,” safety Ryan Clark said of the defense's not-immodest expectations.

They still have an age-old problem; with an average age of 30, they could be the NFL's oldest defense. They might start the season in less than two weeks without injured outside linebacker James Harrison, the disruptive pass rusher whose edginess not just personifies the Steelers but energizes them.

They also are without James Farrior, the longtime captain whose retirement has stripped them of some of their character, continuity and cohesiveness.

Regardless, the Steelers still believe in coach Mike Tomlin's oft-repeated mantra: The standard is the standard. And for the Steelers' defense, that is being the NFL's gold standard, no matter the season or the personnel.

In separate interviews Monday, both Clark and Troy Polamalu mentioned how the Steelers have been frustrated at not being able to play up to the level of the 2008 defense, which was Steel Curtain-like in its dominance despite taking on one of the toughest schedules of any Super Bowl winner.

To Polamalu and Clark, that is the standard.

“I don't remember that defense doing much wrong,” Clark said. “But last year's defense, even though we were No. 1, it didn't look like that and that's what we are striving for.”

“We could run the same defense 10 times and change positions and make it 10 different defenses to a quarterback,” Polamalu said.

This defense's development is being overlooked in part due to all the scrutiny of new coordinator Todd Haley's offense. But defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is designing some new gimmicks too, his players say, even as outside linebacker Chris Carter, nose tackle Steve McLendon, cornerback Keenan Lewis and nickel back Cortez Allen all see their roles expand greatly.

Clark likes how a defense that had a franchise-low 15 turnovers in 16 games last season has forced seven in three preseason games, three against Buffalo on Saturday.

“Where we've gotten better is the Ziggy Hoods, the Steve McLendons and these guys picking up their play and putting more pressure on the quarterback and making plays,” Clark said. “I think the youth movement has helped us.”

While this unmistakably LeBeau defense might not have as many options strategically due to so many new players possibly being on the field, Polamalu believes it could wind up being an upgrade over last season's top-ranked unit.

“The only thing that really limits us in how we prepare for a game is definitely not age, or slowness,” Polamalu said. “We're limited only by what we as a defense can understand. … Guys like Cortez, Steve and Chris Carter don't understand the defense on the level of the guys who played it before them. The more and more they're able to develop, the more and more we're able to expand our defense. And we can be as good as we've ever been as long as we can communicate well and play cohesively.”

Carter said there is a healthy pressure on the newer players because, “I don't want to cause a drop-off in a guy's play because I'm not taking care of my job.”

Just as Clark mentioned Hood and McLendon, Polamalu singled out Allen as being a potential difference maker.

“The nickel position to me is one of the most important positions on this team. You can be anything from just a nickel [back] to Charles Woodson. You can take that defense to a whole another level,” Polamalu said. “Cortez is playing a major role. He's able to match up with smaller guys, like a Wes Welker, all the way to a [265-pound Rob] Gronkowski.”

Then there's the intangible Hampton believes the Steelers will never lack.

“I expect us to be better than we were last year,” Hampton said. “We always have a chip on our shoulders.”

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at arobinson@tribweb.com.

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