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By design, Steelers defense has gotten younger since 2011

| Monday, May 5, 2014, 10:00 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward celebrates after Browns kicker Billy Cundiff missed a field goal during the third quarter Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers linebacker Jarvis Jones plays against the Bengals on Monday, Sept. 16, 2013, at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati.

When Warren Sapp uttered the now infamous — “Old, slow, and it's over” — in the days following the Steelers' 28-point season-opening loss to Baltimore three years ago, few paid much attention to the Hall of Famer-turned-analyst.

Apparently except for the Steelers' decision-makers.

While “slow, and it's over” was debatable, “old” wasn't.

The Steelers had an NFL-high eight starters who were at least 30 years old and an average age of 31.1 years in 2011, though it didn't show up on the field as the aging unit finished No. 1 in total defense at the end of a 12-4 playoff season.

Even so, the Steelers had no choice but to get younger.

“There's no doubt that it has been a goal of theirs the past couple of years to get younger on defense,” said Matt Williamson, NFL scout for ESPN.com and former Cleveland Browns college and pro scout.

Quietly, that's what the Steelers have done.

The Steelers have shaved nearly four years off the average age of their opening day starting defense — from 31.1 to a projected 27.4 when they open the season Sept. 7 against Cleveland.

The 30-somethings went from eight (Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel, James Harrison, James Farrior, Larry Foote, Ike Taylor and Ryan Clark) to two (Taylor and Troy Polamalu) with a possibility of nobody on the starting defense being 30 come 2015. Taylor is in the last year of his deal, and Polamalu signed an extension in March that could lead to him being being released next year without much damage done to the salary cap.

“I think football nature took over there,” Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said of the team's decision to get younger. “Those decisions were made for us as we went through it. Players decline. It happens to the greatest of them. I think that happens over time. Sometimes those declining players have escalating salaries and that forces you to do some of those things.”

The average age on defense could be reduced further after the draft.

“They could draft a starter that could bring it down even more,” Williamson said. “I am not sure that they are as good as a defense. Just because Jarvis Jones is a starter, that doesn't mean he is playing at a typical outside linebacker level of play the Steelers are used to.”

The Steelers have lost three of four starting linebackers over the past four years — Farrior, Harrison and Woodley. They've been replaced by a couple of early-round draft picks in Jones and Jason Worilds.

Younger doesn't mean better, and in the Steelers case, the numbers support that. The Steelers' defense dipped to 20th in the league during 2013's second consecutive 8-8 non-playoff season in 2013. A lot of that was because of a run defense that averaged 115.6 yards per game and allowed five plays of 48 yards or longer.

So the transition hasn't been without flaws.

“If it was a smooth (transition), we would've been winning championships,” defensive end Cameron Heyward said. “It is just different. Every year it has been new guys in and old guys out. Whoever is here, we have just kept it going. Whoever is on that field and whoever is here working has the same mindset.”

Heyward, who will turn 25 on Tuesday, was part of a unit that, when he was a rookie, had four players at least 33 years old. Today he's the most-experienced player on the defensive line.

“It's a new team,” Heyward said. “We're just learning to grow together and trying to bring up the younger guys and the newer guys and work on becoming a better defense. Whether you are young or old, we really don't even look at the age.”

Don't tell that to Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin.

Mark Kaboly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at mkaboly@tribweb.com or via Twitter @MarkKaboly_trib.

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