Steelers defense tries recapturing old form
The Steelers ranked fifth in the NFL in total defense last season and were, for the most part, harder to run on than wet cement.
What the defense didn't do: measure up to the near-impossible standard it set in 2008. That is why it served as something of a scapegoat when the Steelers missed the playoffs a season after winning a record sixth Super Bowl.
If the Steelers are to return to the ranks of contender, the defense will have to resemble the suffocating unit that led the way in 2008, not the one that failed to protect five fourth-quarter leads last season.
And James Farrior wouldn't have it any other way.
"Not a knock on our offense," the veteran inside linebacker said, "but we always feel like we need to be out there setting the tone and setting how it's going to be. It's been like that around here for a long time."
It better be that way this season or the Steelers may find themselves staring down the barrel of 8-8, if not worse.
The offense has taken one hit after another since the Steelers had a 4,000-yard passer, two 1,000-yard receivers and a 1,000-yard rusher in a season for the first time in franchise history.
When the dust finally settles after a tumultuous offseason, the Steelers will find themselves without wide receiver Santonio Holmes (traded after a series of off-the-field missteps) and right tackle Willie Colon (suffered a season-ending foot injury in late June).
Meanwhile, they have to negotiate the first quarter of their schedule without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who is suspended for at least four games for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy.
To say the onus is on the defense with the Steelers reporting to training camp Friday is a bit of an understatement.
"Lean on them early, late, you always lean on them," said quarterback Byron Leftwich, who enters camp as the favorite to start while Roethlisberger is out. "When I was here (two seasons ago) 15, 14 points, that got you the win. That makes it a lot easier on the offense, especially the quarterback."
Defense needs to make more big plays
The problem for Leftwich and the Steelers is that 2008 seems longer than two years ago.
The Steelers may have been one of the top defenses statistically in the NFL last season (only four teams yielded less than the 305.3 yards per game that the Steelers gave up in 2009).
But unlike in 2008, the defense came up surprisingly short when it came to making plays that qualified as either big or timely.
That helps explain why the Steelers went from a plus-three in turnover differential in 2008 to minus-four last season. It also is why the Steelers' defense suffered embarrassing meltdowns in losses to bottom-feeding Kansas City and Oakland.
"For us, the measuring stick is going to be turnovers and big plays, meaning we've got to cut down on the big plays," said defensive backs coach Ray Horton, whose secondary intercepted just eight passes last season, one less than Troy Polamalu had in 2008. "There's nothing wrong with this defense. We're a shade away from being right back to No. 1 again. If we stay healthy, we're going to be a top 2, top 3 defense."
The Steelers may have done that — and come close to replicating the success they had in 2008 — had they stayed healthy last season.
Polamalu played in parts of just five games because of separate injuries to his left knee. Aaron Smith, one of the most underrated players in the NFL, didn't play after the middle of October because of a torn rotator cuff.
Polamalu and Smith are arguably the Steelers' two most important defensive players. A return to health by both would go a long way toward restoring some of the shine, not to mention bite, to a defense that finished first in scoring, passing and total defense in 2008.
To Tomlin, age is just a number
The Steelers' ability to turn back the clock may hinge of the group collectively fending off the advances of time.
The average age of the projected starters at the start of the regular season will be just over 30 years old. That number is significantly higher when it comes to the starting front seven on defense.
Age became a convenient culprit last season when the Steelers struggled, particularly since their fourth-quarter troubles seemed linked to fatigue.
Yet Mike Tomlin maintains he is not concerned that time is catching up with the group that has been kept together since he took over as Steelers coach in 2007.
"I think we have done a nice job of infusing guys that go along with the veteran guys," Tomlin said at the conclusion of offseason practices in June.
Translation: the Steelers have not let their defense grow old before making wholesale changes.
Indeed, linebackers Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley, the Steelers' first two picks in the 2007 draft, are starters. Defensive end Ziggy Hood, a first-round draft pick in 2009, should push for more playing time this season and allow the Steelers to rest Smith and Brett Keisel more.
The Steelers also got younger at a key spot in their secondary when they signed free-agent safety Will Allen in March. Allen, 28, is expected to replace Tyrone Carter as the No. 3 safety, which has become a critical position given Polamalu's injury history.
Yet changes the Steelers made during the offseason — they brought back linebacker Larry Foote and did not re-sign Carter or cornerback Deshea Townsend — should not have been prompted by concerns over the age of the defense.
That is the opinion of at least one NFL analyst.
"It was really interesting because what I saw (last season) was mental mistakes, which I think was very uncharacteristic of Dick LeBeau's defense because they play that defense so well," said Monday Night Football color analyst Ron Jaworski, who studies film as much as anybody in his business. "They just seemed to be out of sync and they were making mistakes in pass coverage as well, which is very uncharacteristic of the Steelers' defense under (defensive coordinator) Dick LeBeau. I would think it was more of a classroom offseason than a bang-it type offseason because their mistakes were more mental than physical."
Marcellus Wiley, who played defensive end in the NFL from 1997-2006, said the key to the Steelers' defense returning to its 2008 form may lie in the group playing with more swagger.
"No one plays a more attacking, great style of the 3-4 than the Pittsburgh Steelers," said Wiley, now an NFL analyst for ESPN. "It's kind of going into your wallet, grabbing that ID card out again, checking it, remembering it says Pittsburgh Steelers on it and playing up to that billing."
Farrior, 35, is anxious to do just that.
He suffered a bit of a drop-off last season after making the Pro Bowl in 2008.
The 14th-year veteran got beat on late fourth-down completions in losses to the Bengals and Ravens. Those plays were emblematic of the Steelers' inability to close out opponents in 2009.
Farrior said he is confident the Steelers can show people that they are the defense of old (or 2008 in this case) and not an old defense.
"I think we can get back to that level," Farrior said. "It's just a matter of us jelling together."
How they measure up
The Steelers defense was good last season but not transcendent as it had been the previous year. Here are how those units stack up against one another in a handful of key categories.
Total yards: 305.3/237.2
Sacks : 47/51
Interceptions : 12/20
Third down pct.: 42.3/31.4
Yards per play: 5.1⁄3.9
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