Veterans on Defense Must Stay Healthy For Steelers to Stay Competitive in 2013


Taylor will start his ninth season in a row at cornerback. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Although the Steelers are rebuilding on the defensive side of the ball with younger players at positions like outside linebacker and nose tackle, their defense is still a veteran-laden unit.  In fact, five of the team’s eleven projected starters as they head into the 2013 season are between the ages of 32 and 35 years of age.

Amazingly, Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, Brett Keisel, Ike Taylor, and Larry Foote have combined to start 570 games during their professional careers!  Best of all is the fact that all five remain starters even as they are in the double-digits in terms of years they have played in the N.F.L..   So while the experience is fantastic, those are nevertheless some “hard N.F.L. miles” which those guys have logged over the last decade.

So while these specific veterans might have slowed in terms of production and effectiveness in recent years, they still must have enough left in their collective tanks to play significant amounts of snaps this fall.  Thus, staying in tip-top shape and out of the whirlpool will be of the utmost importance for this group of five.

I won’t sugarcoat it, readers.  If the Steelers wish to field a competitive team this fall, their core of veterans on defense must do whatever is possible to remain in the starting lineup, because there is a significant lack of experienced depth behind them.

Don’t believe me?  Take a look for yourselves:

  • If Keisel (or even Ziggy Hood) goes down for a significant period, then the Steelers will be forced to rely on the triumvirate of Cameron Heyward, Al Woods, and 2013 7th round pick Nick Williams.  Neither of these three players has started a single professional game.
  • If Taylor goes down to injury like he did last year, Pittsburgh must insert the inconsistent William Gay, Curtis Brown, Josh Victorian, DeMarcus Van Dyke,  2013 5th round pick Terry Hawthorne, and 2013 UDFA Nigel Malone.  While Gay (52 starts) and Van Dyke (4 starts) have the most experience on the defensive side of the ball at the professional level, there will still be an enormous drop-off in play if they are pressed into a starting role.
  • If Polamalu or Clark cannot play, Da’Mon Cromartie-Smith, Robert Golden, and 2013 4th round pick Shamarko Thomas must pick up the slack.  Although Golden played down the stretch in spot duty in Pittsburgh’s secondary, him and Cromartie-Smith have been “special teamers” more than anything else.  While Thomas’ talent ceiling is high, all three players have combined to start zero games at the N.F.L. level.
  • Finally, if Larry Foote gets nicked up, then Pittsburgh will be forced to play Brian Rolle, Kion Wilson, Marshall McFadden, Stevenson Sylvester, or 2013 6th round pick Vince Williams.  Only Rolle (20 games, 13 starts) has any extensive professional experience at linebacker, and he played outside in a 4-3 scheme with Philadelphia.

Although Pittsburgh’s defense could sustain the loss of one or even two of these players for significant periods of time, depth remains a huge issue at the five aforementioned positions.  While I agree that the Steelers are in desperate need of youth movement on the defensive side of the ball, I do hope that none of these backups need to be pressed into starting roles or used as starters during the 2013 campaign.

The scariest part of the lack of depth at these specific positions though is that the aforementioned veterans have been troubled by injuries during recent seasons.

As I mentioned before, Taylor missed Pittsburgh’s final four games last year with a broken leg which he sustained during the Steelers’ thrilling victory against the Ravens.  While Keisel suited up for all 16 of Pittsburgh’s regular season games last fall, he missed a total of 14 between 2008 and 2011 due to various ailments.  Polamalu has missed the most amount of time of the five projected starters during the last four years though.  Troy has been on the sidelines for 22 regular season games since 2009, and he was hobbled throughout the 2010 postseason to boot.

Ryan Clark seems to only miss games due to his sickle-cell condition, but the way he levels ball-carriers makes him a concussion waiting to happen.  Like Clark, Larry Foote has been a “tank” of sorts during his professional career as he has only missed a total of two regular season games over the last 10 seasons.  Like Clark however, Foote is 33 years of age, and any injury to him could be disastrous due to the fact that the lack of experienced depth behind him at inside linebacker makes me cringe more than any position on Pittsburgh’s roster.

Final Thoughts

I completely understand that the Steelers are in the midst of a massive rebuilding process.  In fact, I am excited to see what a guy like Jason Worilds can do during their first full year as a starter (if he beats out Jarvis Jones of course).  Due to the complexity of Dick LeBeau’s defensive scheme though, rookies are usually a “last resort” when it comes to playing time in Pittsburgh.  Thus, it is of the utmost importance that the Steelers’ veterans can stay healthy this year and next year to help “bridge the gap” for these younger players to (hopefully) develop into long term starters as they work their way into the starting lineup at their own pace.

While it is not 2005, let alone 2008, I hope that these guys are able to gear up for one “swan song” this fall.  Most of all however, I hope that they can stay healthy on a consistent basis.  Otherwise, things could get ugly quickly for Pittsburgh if they are forced to rely on their inexperienced depth too early and too often during the 2013 regular season.

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