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mesaSteeler
01-08-2010, 06:01 AM
Pittsburgh Steelers 2009 Season Review, Part One: Defense
Brian Lutz

Featured Columnist
http://bleacherreport.com/articles/321345-pittsburgh-steelers-2009-season-review-part-1-defense
Written on January 06, 2010

KANSAS CITY, MO - NOVEMBER 22: Linebacker James Farrior #51 of the Pittsburgh Steelers looks to the sidelines for a signal during NFL action against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium on November 22, 2009 in Kansas City, Missouri. The Chiefs defeated the Steelers 27-24. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images) Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

In Miami last weekend, the Pittsburgh Steelers' 2009 season came to a fitting conclusion in the waning moments of the final regular season game—Ike Taylor intercepted a pass.

It was his first interception since Dec. 7, 2008, and, amazingly, the first pick of 2009 from a Steelers starting cornerback. (I’m not counting Deshea Townsend’s earlier pick, because he wasn’t a regular starter.) Sure, there were only 36 seconds left in the season, but they finally got one.

It was a proper microcosm for the 2009 season; someone made a play when it ultimately didn’t matter. It was too little, too late.

But it was something else about Taylor that struck me, something I noticed a few weeks ago, before he shaved his hair into whatever pattern that was. During the Baltimore game, the camera gave a wide shot of the Steelers sideline, and Taylor was standing facing the field with his helmet off.

On the middle of the back of his head was a tiny but noticeable bald spot.

And that is the real story behind the 2009 season. Suddenly, dramatically, and with devastating results, the Pittsburgh Steelers defense got old.

Though his hairline says otherwise, Taylor, at 28, is a relative youngster on a defensive unit that features half a dozen starters who are now into their 30s. The age of the defense was a primary factor in several losses this season, including all the blown fourth quarter leads. Even in Miami, where the defense played one of its best all-around games of the season, they nearly collapsed one last time, giving up two touchdowns in three minutes of the final quarter to an offense headed by none other than Tyler Thigpen.

With 2009 now in the rear-view mirror, the organization must take a hard look at a group that was for many years the strength of the team. The defense still put up respectable statistics and certainly doesn’t lack playmakers. A healthy Troy Polamalu in 2010 would go a long way towards repairing what happened in ’09.

Here’s what happened—several dependable and reliable players suffered a noticeable decline or were hampered by injuries. How much age has to do with this is anyone’s guess. But it didn’t take a football savant to see that, on plays that mattered most, the defense was juuust a step too slow. Too little, too late.

The principal offenders were Townsend and James Farrior, a pair of 34-year-olds who seemed to have lost a step or three overnight. On the front line, Brett Keisel was productive but battled injuries and fatigue, while Aaron Smith’s season was over before it really got started.

James Harrison had another strong season (10 sacks) but seemed to wear down, initially after Smith got hurt and then again late in the year. Ryan Clark, usually so steady at safety, was on the wrong end of several big plays. Of course, you could say that about almost every player on the back seven.

A strange thing about the defense was that many young players failed to get a chance to perform, even as those playing in front of them were floundering. This may be because the defense is difficult to learn—rookies don’t often crack the defensive lineup—but I thought several players deserved at least a shot at more playing time. Guys like Ryan Mundy, Keyaron Fox, Joe Burnett, and Ziggy Hood weren’t on the field enough.

With depth being a major question at several positions, including cornerback, safety, and defensive tackle, the team may be in a precarious position this offseason due to some curious signings the previous two summers.

Before the 2008 season, they gave Farrior, who was 32 at the time, a five-year extension. Before this season, the Steelers gave James Harrison, who is now 31, a similar five-year extension. Both moves had good merit; Farrior was a key figure and leader in the locker room, and Harrison, after all, was the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

But the moves seem like head-scratchers when looking at how the franchise typically handles situations like that, when defensive players are getting older or declining. That is, they are rarely, if ever, signed to long-term deals.

The team let Joey Porter walk in 2006 when he was 29. All-time sack leader Jason Gildon was 31 in 2003, his last season as a Steeler. Clark Haggans was out of Pittsburgh by age 30; 28-year-old Larry Foote was not re-signed last year. Levon Kirkland was gone at 31, Greg Lloyd at 32.

Some think the Steelers are cheap because of the way these players were cast off. But many of those moves were prescient. Few, if any, of those players made an impact after leaving Pittsburgh (with Porter being a notable exception).

Another recurring theme in ‘09 was that untested and unproven players failed to step up. This was a digression from past seasons, where special-team guys and up-and-comers routinely stepped into the starting lineup without missing a beat. This past season was a different story.

There’s a reason Tyrone Carter has been a back-up safety for 10 seasons, and the Steelers found out the hard way.

Pressed into starting duty, Carter was frequently caught out of position and became a huge liability in pass coverage. He did have one huge game (Denver) but that was overshadowed by his poor play in most of the other 10 games he started. He also affected the play of Clark, who was forced to cover more ground from sideline to sideline.

William Gay looked sharp early in the season but his play declined steadily the rest of the way. He didn’t have a single interception despite getting thrown at almost twice as much as Taylor. Gay didn’t provide much run support either. He raised eyebrows only when he was trucked by Adrian Peterson in the Minnesota game.

That brings us to an interesting final point: Gay ascended to the starting position because former cornerback Bryant McFadden—for whom fans were positively pining this season—was not re-signed. Was it because McFadden was a “Cowher guy” and Gay is a “Tomlin guy”?

No one can say for sure, but it’s clear that the team, as a whole, seems to be stuck in a transition phase. The offense has taken on a completely new identity under Tomlin, while the defense still has the same characteristics it had during the Age of Cowher.

Except—you guessed it—the players are all older. A key free agent this offseason, one who’s already generating some buzz to either be re-signed or franchised, is nose tackle Casey Hampton.

His age? 32.

Yikes.

markymarc
01-08-2010, 03:46 PM
Nice read and thanks for posting it Mesa. I can't wait to see how Mike Tomlin plans on fixing this defense in the off season. Also, I am very surprised Ray Horton was not one of the coaches fired at this point.