The Steelers’ Defensive Puzzle


Dec 16, 2012; Arlington, TX, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers defensive back Josh Victorian (35) – tackle Steve McLendon (90) – safety Troy Polamalu (43) – linebacker Larry Foote (50) and safety Ryan Clark (25) on the field before a play during the game against the Dallas Cowboys at Cowboys Stadium. The Cowboys won 27-24 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

There has been so much talk about the age of the Steelers defense with the adjectives switching from “veteran” to “old” on any given Sunday – usually in relation to a win or loss. During the season it seemed as if the defense got better as the season went on. The poor play during the beginning of the season boggled my mind for such a “veteran” set of players working with a very familiar coach. We couldn’t point to a coaching disruption and many wondered if the injuries of Polamalu and Woodley were part of the disruption.

I’ve seen several blogs and articles lately about how the Steelers salary cap is going to be a nightmare and many defensive players are a big part of it. I’ll confess that I’m new to paying attention to how that works and my learning curve is like scaling the Himalayas. However, I’ve always thought the Steelers did a good job of getting value for money. That’s become a lot harder over the last 10 years. If you want to keep talent, you have to be willing to pay for it. Players’ careers are short and they want compensation now, even if they have no clue how to invest and save for the day they no longer draw the NFL paycheck.

Finding accurate salary data and bonus payments is a little like looking for stock quotes. The Spotrac site has a nice list of figures and so does FoxSports, but the amounts don’t always match. So for this article, I’m not going to make a salary-to-years-to-performance a comparison. However, I might get there someday. Instead, I concentrated on years of experience and performance. As I looked at the number of years the Steelers active defensive players had been in the league, I wondered if there was an official definition for “veteran” or old. Is there some sort of party with hats and cake to celebrate when they get to a certain mark? Is it five years? Or, maybe 6? Well, then I guess a decade of taking those kinds of hits would label a player as a NFL senior citizen. It occurred to me that I don’t know what makes a player eligible to retire from the NFL as opposed to just quietly fading away. So, I found an article from Sports Illustrated, dated from Sep 2007, which predates the most current round of collective bargaining, but it should give a framework:

"Indeed, the average NFL career lasts only three and a half seasons, usually occurring between ages 21 to 25, and most players earn less than the average NFL salary, about $1.1 million. Players need to play at least three seasons in the NFL to satisfy the pension’s vesting requirement, and age 55 serves as the NFL’s designated retirement age (although players can tap in earlier at reduced payments)."

Ok, three years – something to go on. I found that only a few players have less than the amount of years required for pension-vesting. Over half are well past it.

The Steelers’ “Seniors” include Foote (11 yrs), Clark (11 yrs), Harrison (9 yrs), Polamalu (10 yrs), Keisel (11 yrs), Taylor (10 yrs), Allen (9 yrs), and Hampton (12 yrs).

The second tier is Timmons (6 yrs), Woodley (6 yrs), B. Johnson ( 7 yrs).

The relative newbies are K. Lewis (4 yrs), Cortez Allen (2 yrs), Mundy (4 yrs), Hood (4 yrs), C. Brown (2 yrs), Worilds (3 yrs), Heyward (2 yrs), and McLendon (3 yrs).

I’m probably missing a few, but this pretty much captures the main defensive players this year.

There were also concerns that sacks and interceptions were meager compared to previous years. Well, actually, they are on par with 2011 and somewhat with 2009. 2010 was a banner year and perhaps an unrealistic comparison:

2012             2011              2010              2009

Sacks        37                35                  48                     47

INTs          10                11                  21                     12

So, have Steelers fans formed unrealistic expectations? I don’t know, maybe. I do know we are all fans of the spectacular, leaping, crushing, hard-hitting plays. Football is violent and fans like it that way. Those kinds of plays are more the arena of the young. The older players aren’t going to be able to keep up the high-energy plays. Some would say they are focused. Personally, I like a mix of experience and youth. Too much to any side isn’t good. I’m a fan of balance.

Even though the argument about age has merit, I am having a hard time saying it was a large factor toward the Steelers mediocre year. I’m more willing to point toward dysfunction on the offense. However, defensive players with nearly a decade in the league are likely past their peak performance. Economically-speaking it cannot make good football business sense to have a lot of senior veterans on the team. Some provide intangibles and I would suggest that Larry Foote is one of them. However, he becomes an unrestricted free agent next year, as does Casey Hampton. When I compare Foote to Hampton in statistics and salary, I would contend that Foote earned his salary, but Hampton – well, maybe not so much. Foote had 75 unassisted tackles and 4 sacks while Hampton had 11 unassisted tackles and 0 sacks.

I was surprised when they let Farrior go a year ago, but it makes more sense now. It might be a good bet to expect the unrestricted free agents to be let go unless they negotiate a much smaller contract. Ryan Clark has one year left on his contract while James Harrison, Troy Polamalu, Brett Keisel, and LaMarr Woodley have at least two left and, based on the two sites I looked at, contribute heavily to the salary cap concerns. So who goes and who stays? Well, I guess we’ll see. I’m just hoping they Steelers make sound decisions for experience with the older players as well as for youth in the 2013 draft.