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Starkey: Window still open for Steelers' defense

| Thursday, July 15, 2010

Dick LeBeau surprised me with the way he bit off his words.

We were having a mild-mannered conversation during spring workouts — most conversations with the Steelers' defensive coordinator are that way — when I asked about the criticism of his aging defense.

LeBeau's smile disappeared.

"Nobody's counting (years)," he said. "It's how you play. I think our 30-somethings are going to give a damn good account of themselves this year."

I think he's right. I also think the main reason the Steelers' Super Bowl window remains open, ever so slightly, is the possibility of a dominant defense.

It sounded as if head coach Mike Tomlin, who has since signed a three-year contract extension that should have surprised no one, played on his defenders' pride during those spring sessions.

LeBeau said Tomlin reminded his players of "how meaningful every snap is" and that opportunities could be dwindling.

"I was really identifying with that," LeBeau said, his smile returning, "as a guy who was 72 before he got into the Hall of Fame."

Canton finally came calling for LeBeau on Feb. 6. He will be inducted Aug. 7. A little more than a month later, the Steelers' defense will embark on what it hopes will be a redemptive season.

Never mind the 2009 ranking of fifth overall. The Steelers 'D' deserved an 'F' in too many games. It tied for a mediocre 12th overall in points allowed and repeatedly was embarrassed, whether by the Browns running wild or the anemic Chiefs and Raiders hitting huge pass plays with games on the line.

If it was sickening for long-time Steelers' fans to have to watch that, imagine how the longtime players felt.

Inside linebacker Larry Foote, 30, spent last season in the NFL purgatory known as Detroit. He returned to find several angry men on the South Side. As with LeBeau, Foote's perpetual smile disappeared when the conversation turned to age.

"These guys have been 30 forever," he said. "Look, we definitely have the goods. I'm coming back to a situation where they have a nasty taste in their mouths from not making the playoffs. There's always a nasty taste around here when that happens.

"These guys are hungry."

That's good, but the question hanging over this defense isn't whether it'll be hungry enough but healthy enough.

Analyze last season all you like, the biggest reason the Steelers missed the playoffs was the absence of safety Troy Polamalu and defensive end Aaron Smith. Period.

I still like a front three that includes Smith, 34, Casey Hampton, 32, and Brett Keisel, 31, with second-year man Ziggy Hood sprinkled in.

It's not like Smith's skills have eroded. He has been beset by a couple of major injuries, the latest a torn rotator cuff, and says he'll be healthy for camp. Hampton had a Pro Bowl-caliber season, according to Tomlin, and Keisel was solid. Hood showed a non-stop motor in limited snaps.

The linebackers remain the strength of the defense. LaMarr Woodley, 25, and James Harrison, 32, on the outside are the envy of most teams.

James Farrior, 35, admittedly has lost a step inside, while Lawrence Timmons, 24, seems miscast next to him but has a world of talent. I'm guessing a lot of teams would find a place for those two, and Foote can still stop the run.

Cornerback is a huge question mark, but Ike Taylor, 30, remains a quality player, and the return of Bryant McFadden, 28, should help.

Safety is set with Ryan Clark, 30, and Polamalu, 29.

Polamalu's health is the No. 1 factor in whether this defense will reclaim its greatness. If he's hobbled, all bets are off.

As for the offense, well, an offseason that started with Ben-a-palooza-gone-bad and a Santonio Holmes fly pattern to New York City hit rock bottom (you hope) when starting right tackle Willie Colon sustained a season-ending Achilles injury two weeks ago.

Fans might not appreciate Colon, but plenty of people paid to follow the sport apparently do. Sports Illustrated's Peter King was going to label Colon the 48th-best player in the entire league before the injury changed things.

That may have been a bit delusional. This is not: The Steelers, as Foote says, still have the goods on defense in spite of their advancing years.

Not that anybody's counting.

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