Ahh. I sit back and feel spoiled when I reminisce about the last decade of watching my beloved Steelers take the field. Two titles, constantly a playoff threat, and a third Super Bowl appearance to top it off. As with every team that achieves high levels of success, the key players to that success get older and slower. For most franchises, when top players start to decline that also means the performance of the team also declines (see Boston Celtics). That philosophy is not entirely true when it comes to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
A lot of my friends (even several of the fellas here at Sports-Kings) have been telling me the Steelers are getting old and are headed for some down years. Didn’t Warren Sapp say that after Week One of the season and they went 12-4 while ranking impressively in defensive categories? But that’s neither here nor there. They key players on defense, and even some on offense, will eventually be gone in the next couple years.
I won’t even dive into worrying about the offense. Ben Roethlisberger has at least four good seasons left, surrounded by possibly the best young receiving corps in the league. Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, and a healthy Emmanuel Sanders provide all the explosiveness needed for a dangerous air attack. Tight ends David Johnson and Weslye Saunders both have youth, and have both showed great promise. Don’t believe me, look up Saunders’ touchdown grab against the Kansas City Chiefs this past season.
The defense is what everyone seems to be talking about when it comes to age and regression and down years. Down years? I doubt that. The Steelers are highly regarded as one of the best organizations in professional sports, especially in terms of drafting and developing players. They’ve always had a “next man up” attitude, and that will not change even as the older players filter out and give way to the next generation. They are also extremely well coached, especially on defense, which is the area expected to falter in the coming years. Let’s be realistic. This is the Steelers defense we’re talking about. Can anyone remember the last time the defense was sub-par? I can’t. But a youth movement is coming, so let me run down the players on defense and their likely replacements. When I say likely replacements, it is based off my own knowledge from what I have seen on the field. I like to test my own analysis once in awhile!
POSITION: Strong Safety
CURRENT STARTER: Troy Polamalu, Age 30
PROJECTED REPLACEMENT: Keenan Lewis, Age 25.
I don’t think I need to explain how good Polamalu is. He may very well be the best safety in the league right now and will go down as one of the greatest. First ballot Hall of Famer for sure. Right now, Keenan Lewis is listed as a cornerback. Will Allen is behind Polamalu on the depth chart at the position. With the draft and free-agency coming up, as well as 2011 third round pick Curtis Brown waiting in the wings at corner, I would definitely experiment with Lewis at safety. Throw in the way William Gay played last season, and I think corner may be a little too crowded. Lewis has natural athleticism and above average speed. I’m going off a small sample here with Lewis, but he has raw talent. Talent that could be molded the next couple years behind the mentoring of Troy Polamalu. I’ve always liked what I saw from Lewis when he was in the game, and if he can harness his natural ability he may be too good to leave off the field.
POSITION: Outside Linebacker
CURRENT STARTER: James Harrison, Age 33.
PROJECTED REPLACEMENT: Jason Worilds, Age 23.
Once again, no explanation needed for Harrison. He is a sack machine. Given the nature of his position, I think he will be able to produce a couple more quality seasons as strictly a pass rusher. When the Steelers drafted Worilds and I saw tape, a young James Harrison came to mind. I have to believe Worilds was taken to be the next guy in a great line of Steelers pass rushing linebackers. When given the chance to play or having to fill in due to injury, Worilds has not disappointed in that aspect. He’s given me no reason to believe he won’t make a smooth transition when he becomes the starter. His main job will be to rush the passer, and he’s shown he can do that, albeit a small sample. It won’t hurt to have one of the best in Harrison to look up to either.
CURRENT STARTER: Ike Taylor, Age 31.
PROJECTED REPLACEMENT: Curtis Brown, Age 23.
Ike is coming off a career year in the first of his new four year deal. He’s in excellent shape, and I expect him to only build off this past season. If he can perform at that level for at least two more years, it will enable the highly touted Curtis Brown out of Texas to get acclimated to the position under Taylor’s wing. Before being injured, Brown was making plays on special teams and when he got into games when he was needed. Three years is more than enough for a third round pick to get ready to become the starter after Taylor departs. As with outside linebacker, I have to think Brown was drafted with the Steelers intending him to be a starter in the future. There should be no problem here when that time comes. That is also three years the Steelers will have to upgrade the position if Brown doesn’t progress as expected or can’t stay healthy.
POSITION: Free Safety
CURRENT STARTER: Ryan Clark, Age 32.
PROJECTED REPLACEMENT: Cortez Allen, Age 23.
I know I know, Cortez Allen, like Keenan Lewis, is listed as a corner. But hear me out. Ryan Clark is one of the most fundamental and underrated players in the NFL. He has emerged as a Pro-Bowler even in the shadow of Troy Polamalu. He is personally my favorite player, and is the Steelers’ general on the field. In other words, a guy like Ryan Clark will be very hard to replace. So why the relatively unknown Cortez Allen from The Citadel? Seeing tape of Allen, he’s got pretty good size for a defensive back at 6 foot 1, and he’s also quite fast. Football doesn’t come first at the Citadel, a military school. Do the math now, peeps. Allen hasn’t even been allowed to develop his overall ability as a football player because it takes a backseat at the Citadel. The pros of coming from such a school? Discipline. Dedication. Work ethic. All things that Ryan Clark posseses. Allen already has the athleticism, and much like Lewis, just needs to harness it. As I stated before, cornerback may be crowded, and if Clark can mentor this kid he may also be too good to leave off the field. I don’t believe current backup Ryan Mundy is the answer. I’d give Cortez Allen a shot.
POSITION: Defensive Line
CURRENT STARTERS: Casey Hampton, Age 34, Brett Keisel, Age 33.
PROJECTED REPLACEMENTS: Cam Heyward, Age 22, Steve McClendon, Age 26.
This position may be the most crucial, and the first that we see immediate changes in. Both Keisel and Hampton were injured in the playoff loss to Denver. The good news? Heyward played more than solid when he saw the field this season, which should be expected from a first round pick. Casey Hampton has been the anchor of the Steelers 3-4 defense for what seems like forever. If they plan to keep that as their base defense, then McClendon will have to step up. Again the good news? He did just that this past season when Hampton was out. For good measure Ziggy Hood is already becoming acclimated to being a starter as the third down lineman. Once again, mentoring will play a big part of the transition, but I am excited to see the young guys get in there and get used to playing Pittsburgh defense. From what I have seen so far from these guys, there shouldn’t be a problem even if this position is the most urgent.
POSITION: Middle Linebacker
CURRENT STARTER: James Farrior, Age 37.
PROJECTED REPLACEMENT: Stevenson Sylvester, Age 23.
This may be the second most urgent position with Farrior being 37. He has to lose a step at some point, even though it doesn’t seem like he will. He seems to never miss time, which is tough for me because I have basically nothing to base Stevenson off of. The Steelers are a linebacker factory, though, and that position usually gets filled typically well by whoever has to step up and do the job. Stevenson also has two years experience under his belt, so that says to me they expect him to be on the field at some point, and that point could be soon. I’ll stay with the theme of mentoring, and you can’t go wrong with a guy like Farrior who has played until age 37 at a high level.
Senior Columnist: Jim Racalto
Twitter: @HurricaneJ22, @RealSportsKings