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Father Time Steelers' biggest hurdle to return to Super Bowl

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Steeler fans, I feel your pain. After closing the gap to 21-17 in Super Bowl XLV, it looked as though the game was playing into Pittsburgh's hands. Even on the final drive, it was almost as if it was a foregone conclusion that Ben Roethlisberger would make plays out of the pocket, hit some of those annoying dinks and dunks that drive guys like Dom Capers crazy, and ultimately lead the Steelers to the winning touchdown.

Didn't happen. And thus begins the 2011 offseason for Steel City. As we continue our series of exit interviews, we take a look at some issues confronting the defending AFC champs.

Age of defensive starters at beginning of next year
Player Age
James Farrior, ILB 36
Aaron Smith, DE 35
Casey Hampton, NT 34
James Harrison, OLB 33
Brett Keisel, DE 32
Ryan Clark, FS 31
Ike Taylor, CB 31
Troy Polamalu, SS 30
Bryant McFadden, CB 29
LaMarr Woodley, OLB 26
Lawrence Timmons, ILB 25
Average age of starting defense will be 31.1 in Week 1

1. Age becoming a concern?

One issue that could become huge is age. Having a veteran team is good, but much of the core is either rapidly approaching 30, or well past it. Pittsburgh has 23 guys on its roster that will either turn 30 in 2011, or are already past it. The majority of them are on defense.

Coach Mike Tomlin and his staff must find ways to take some of the toll off players in minicamps, training camp and preseason to save some legs, while also getting younger players first team reps as much as possible. One draft will not completely fix this concern.

2.Tread left on tires?

When a defense runs a 3-4 scheme, it must have a big-time player at nose tackle to be truly successful. Look at the 3-4 teams that won the Super Bowl recently: Green Bay (B.J. Raji), Pittsburgh (Casey Hampton), New England (Vince Wilfork.) These are all damn good football players.

Problem is, Hampton will be entering his 11 season and is due $4 million. His backup, Chris Hoke, will be 35. Wear and tear is a concern across the line. Defensive end Brett Keisel, who, like Hampton, is a very good player, will be in his 10th season. Fellow defensive end Aaron Smith is going into his 13th year, is coming off an injury and has $4.5 million coming to him. While Ziggy Hood played well in Smith's place, depth at defensive line is key in the NFL. These guys chase, occupy blockers, and chase some more. The Steelers need to think of the future and get some fresh legs on their front line.

In January and February, NFL.com took a look at the five pressing questions facing each team as it heads into the offseason.

AFC East:
» Buffalo Bills: Must remedy draft failures
» Miami Dolphins: Need to overcome awkwardness
» New England Patriots: Issues start on defense
» New York Jets: Rocky road to reach Super Bowl
AFC North:
» Baltimore Ravens: Immense pressure on Flacco
» Cincinnati Bengals: Distractions cloud team's future
» Cleveland Browns: New coach faces no easy fix
» Pittsburgh Steelers: Father Time is biggest hurdle
AFC South:
» Houston Texans: Big issues on defense
» Indianapolis Colts: Big decisions on key players
» Jacksonville Jaguars: Same issues haunt team
» Tennessee Titans: Big void at QB with Young gone
AFC West:
» Denver Broncos: Defense will dictate offseason
» Kansas City Chiefs: Sustaining is next challenge
» Oakland Raiders: Team has hope, questions
» San Diego Chargers: Bolts aim to bounce back
NFC East:
» Dallas Cowboys: More holes to fill than coach
» New York Giants: Many lingering questions
» Philadelphia Eagles: More drama on horizon
» Washington Redskins: Huge problems to tackle
NFC North:
» Chicago Bears: Cutler opens deep bag of issues
» Detroit Lions: Closing in on respectability
» Green Bay Packers: Champs face tricky offseason
» Minnesota Vikings: Uncertainty surrounds team
NFC South:
» Atlanta Falcons: Need help to take next step
» Carolina Panthers: Plenty of room to improve
» New Orleans Saints: Time to tackle backfield, D
» Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Next step won't be easy
NFC West:
» Arizona Cardinals: QB quandary still an issue
» San Francisco 49ers: Must settle QB situation
» Seattle Seahawks: Playoff run can't hide issues
» St. Louis Rams: Reason for optimism

3. Time to go to corner market?

The toughest thing to obtain in the NFL is a shutdown corner, be it through the draft, free agency or trade. Think about it: How many franchise quarterbacks can you think of off the top of your head? Eight? Ten? Now, how many corners come to mind? Three?

If Pittsburgh doesn't need a shutdown guy, it could definitely use an upgrade at the position. Ike Taylor, Bryant McFadden and William Gay were the weak links of the defense. The three corners totaled four interceptions all season, and it wasn't because quarterbacks were avoiding them. Are they bad? No. Yet, the Packers' wide receivers exposed their lack of make-up speed in the Super Bowl.

McFadden got picked on all season. Taylor, who will be an unrestricted free agent, has always been a blue-collar player. However, neither corner is of the same ilk as the Steelers' safeties, linebackers or front line.

4. Where's the continuity up front?

Offensive line is only really an issue because too many guys ended up in the training room. The two tackles, Max Starks and Willie Colon, have taken some criticism but are decent players. Problem is, both were lost early in the season. Colon is coming off an Achilles' tendon injury and is a free agent. Starks dealt with a neck injury. Starks' backup, Jonathan Scott, is a free agent. Thirteen-year veteran Flozell Adams stepped in and did a better job than most expected, but he could retire.

Another injury problem was stud center Maurkice Pouncey, who missed the Super Bowl. While Doug Legursky filled in admirably, it was just another obstacle for a depleted line that hasn't gotten much continuity. The same holds true at guard, where Ramon Foster became a starter after Trai Essex's play became about as popular as Creed's last album. The other guard, Chris Kemoeatu, was one of the most penalized guards in the league, despite being a steady player.

This unit could become a strong point next season, but for now, the health and free-agent questions need to be answered.

5. What does draft hold?

Pittsburgh hasn't drafted a corner in either of the first two rounds since 2005 -- that could change in April. Offensive line is a possibility. How about wide receiver? Hines Ward is on his last legs, despite the fact he miraculously gets open. But what you saw against the Packers was the Steelers trying to use speedster Mike Wallace as a possession guy.

It wouldn't hurt Pittsburgh to consider drafting a big wide receiver similar to what San Diego has in spades. The Steelers' primary options at wideout are all under 6 feet, and tight end Heath Miller wasn't a factor most of the Super Bowl or in the AFC title game.

With a team this good, taking the best player on the board is always a possibility. But as stated earlier, defensive line could be a need with the age of the group.

Elliot Harrison is the research analyst for NFL RedZone on NFL Network.

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