|Tim Heitman/US Presswire|
|James Harrison is one of nine Steelers regulars on defense who are more than 30 years old.|
Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, soon to be 74, told all who would listen that "age is just a number" during his Pro Football Hall of Fame acceptance speech last summer. Considering the antiquity of his current defense, he'd better be right.
For the purposes of 2011, he is.
First, the facts. Nine significant contributors on Pittsburgh's defense are 30 years old or older, or will turn the not-so-magical age this season. This has allowed some to conclude the Steelers' defense is an old, neutered dog. But all that noise will translate to a hill of beans once the real bullets start flying.
After the league's 2010 midseason crackdown on helmet-to-helmet hits, there has been nothing in the play of Harrison, LaMarr Woodley or Ryan Clark that suggests a real lack of aggression. On 99 percent of NFL plays, the game is too fast for players to think about holding up on leveling a ball carrier.
The age thing as the "it" factor in professional football is a bit overstated, particularly in Sixburgh's case. Players take care of their bodies far better than those of yesteryear, so while crossing 30 might be huge for a running back, it doesn't necessarily affect a defensive lineman as adversely.
Did anyone see 34-year-old Shaun Ellis single-handedly destroy the Patriots in last year's divisional playoff? Or the 33-year-old John Abraham channeling his inner John Abraham to collecting 13 sacks in 2010?
Pittsburgh left defensive end Aaron Smith is 35 years old and coming off a torn triceps. He's also one of the smartest players to play the position. As in, ever. His backup, Ziggy Hood, could start for 75 percent of the teams in the league. At the other end, Brett Keisel had one of his best seasons in 2010. Casey Hampton is a plugger in the middle, which contributed to Pittsburgh's ranking as the best run defense in the league. Throw in that the organization took highly touted defensive end Cam Heyward (who looks pretty good) with its first-round pick, and the line should be more than OK.
So tap the brakes with the comparisons to "The Golden Girls." The Steelers ain't that old, and they sure as hell aren't going soft.
Much of this age talk came after Aaron Rodgers and Jordy Nelson played Nerf football with the Steelers during Super Bowl XLV. Safeties Clark and Troy Polamalu looked slow, and the pass rush wasn't getting there. But that was one game against a club that made the defenses in Philadelphia and Atlanta look absolutely silly, too. And let's not forget that Pittsburgh was still in position to win that game in the end, partially due to the defense tightening up.
This preseason, the defense has shown few signs of being a bunch of old weaklings. About the only vulnerability has been in the secondary, where Matt Ryan completed several big plays on Pittsburgh's back four.
But even that hiccup doesn't pass inspection, as Atlanta's quarterback completed 22 of 42 passes and averaged a paltry five yards per attempt. Oh, and that was against two backup corners, as starters Ike Taylor and Bryant McFadden were nursing injuries.
The previous week, LeBeau's defense dominated the Eagles, who many consider to be the most explosive offense in the NFL. Everyone's favorite fantasy quarterback, Michael Vick, looked downright awful, went 5-of-12 passing with three picks. Ouch. The Eagles' first unit managed just 71 yards in the first half.
So before you start counting down the days until LeBeau's veteran group crumbles faster than a Miss Teen USA monologue and prematurely hands the AFC North to a Ravens team that has proven it can't get over the hump, tap the brakes, turbo.
Age is just a number.