|Darron Cummings/Associated Press|
|At age 32, safety Troy Polamalu is among the oldest players on a Steelers defense that appears to be slipping.|
In the NFL, it doesn't take much for a team to fall off the face of the earth. Even a small dip in a handful of statistical categories can turn things sour in a very big way.
Consider the Pittsburgh Steelers. In 2011, they ranked first in total defense, scoring defense and passing defense -- and finished with a 12-4 record and a playoff berth. In 2012, they again ranked first in total defense and passing defense, but slipped to sixth in scoring defense -- and finished 8-8, just short of the playoffs. This season, they've fallen to 12th in total defense, 15th in scoring defense and seventh in passing defense -- and they're 5-8 (after starting 2-6), with the playoffs a mathematical pipe dream at this point.
Those downward trends have made the Steelers' recent inability to force takeaways (they have 15 this season, last in the AFC North) even more glaring. So what went wrong for this team, particularly with regard to its defense, which had ranked in the top five for eight of the past 10 seasons? The common answer is that the Steelers have gotten old, and that's definitely true. But I thought I'd take a deeper look to see how age and other factors have hamstrung this once-powerful unit. Here are four things holding the Steelers back on defense:
This is the biggie. Defensive age speaks volumes when it comes to predicting the success of a football team. As your top defenders get older, they stop flying around like they once did. Where they once might have swooped in from midfield to make a momentum-changing pick along the sideline, they now come up a few inches short or a few seconds late -- a sure sign of decline. Counting on guys like that to contribute like they did in their prime is asking for trouble.
That's where the Steelers find themselves with several of their defensive stalwarts. Between safeties Troy Polamalu (32 years old) and Ryan Clark (34) and cornerbacks Ike Taylor (33) and William Gay (28), the Steelers' four defensive backs have an average age of nearly 32 years -- easily the oldest group in the AFC North -- and it's catching up to them. Defensive end Brett Keisel, meanwhile, is 35. Though he's more of a complementary player in nature, he hasn't lived up to the standard he's set with past performances.
Polamalu's age is especially noticeable. The 2010 Defensive Player of the Year is still effective in spurts, but he no longer makes the kinds of impact plays that used to be his signature, and it's translating to the stat sheet. In 2011, Polamalu topped 90 tackles for the third time in his career. In an injury-shortened 2012 campaign, he had just 34. And this season, he's on pace to finish with 69. Presuming he finishes out the year, it would mark an all-time low for a campaign in which he started 16 games.
As for Taylor, he was, not too long ago, one of the better defensive backs in the NFL, someone I considered to be underrated; capable of blitzing and making plays, he really functioned as a shutdown corner. For what it's worth, the Steelers still have faith in him, often moving him around to cover the opposition's best receiver. However, the veteran seems to have lost a step, as has Clark.
Unfortunately, age is undeniable, unstoppable -- and simple. There's no great mystery at work here. Football is a tough game to play, and it's even tougher when you're in your mid-30s and trying to chase down and tackle guys who are nearly 10 years younger than you.
2) Salary-cap constraints
It wasn't too long ago that the Steelers were considered perennial title contenders -- a fact that hints at another reason for their recent defensive slide. Winning brings with it several challenges, not the least of which are nearly inevitable salary-cap issues. Players on winning teams want to be paid more and attract additional interest on the free-agent market. The Steelers were no different, forced by the cap to make significant cuts -- like parting ways with linebacker James Harrison and cornerback Keenan Lewis -- last offseason.
Yes, it's true that Harrison is 35, and keeping him likely wouldn't have changed things this season. But the fact remains that the Steelers miss the presence he used to bring when he was in his prime, as evidenced by the recent drop-off in production from linebacker LaMarr Woodley, a one-time defensive force who hasn't reached double-digit sacks since 2010 -- the last season in which Harrison had at least 100 tackles and 10 sacks. Meanwhile, Lewis, who was one of the best in terms of burn rate last year, has played well for the New Orleans Saints, contributing to their defensive resurgence this season.
Going forward, the Steelers have big cap-related decisions to make, including what to do with Polamalu and Taylor, who are currently two of the highest-paid players on the team. At some point, they'll likely have to either rework those deals or say goodbye.
3) Trouble finding fresh talent
When you invest a high draft pick in a player, he had better turn into a key contributor. If he doesn't, you're in trouble, as the Steelers have demonstrated recently -- not just once, but several times over.
Defensive end Cameron Heyward, selected with the 31st overall pick in 2011, has not stood out the way a first-rounder is expected to. Jason Worilds (second-round pick in 2010) is OK, but he's no Harrison. He just doesn't seem to make the plays. More problematic are two former first-round choices who are only occasional starters: defensive tackle Ziggy Hood (32nd overall, 2009) and linebacker Jarvis Jones (17th overall, 2013). Jones, picked that highly at a featured position, is the kind of investment that must pay off, but thus far, he's been a disappointment.
Draft misfires such as these have left Pittsburgh, which was once the kind of team that had fresh talent waiting in the wings to take over for aging veterans, high and dry. This issue goes beyond the current older veterans on the roster; in fact, there are several departed players that the Steelers are still looking to replace, including Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and James Farrior.
There is, it must be said, one bright spot on the roster in the form of linebacker Lawrence Timmons, a competitive tackling machine who fits Pittsburgh's scheme very well. But beyond him and perhaps Larry Foote, the veteran linebacker who had 113 tackles and four sacks in 2012 but was lost for this season with a ruptured biceps in Week 1, I don't see much to build around. Gay is functional; though he's never the first to get there, he's always around a play, making an effort to contribute. Still, though, we should remember that he was released by the Cardinals in March after just one season. Cortez Allen, who had surgery in August, has not made much of an impact, starting just five games. Rookie linebacker Vince Williams, who has started nine games, strikes me as a complementary piece at most at this point, though the sixth-round pick might yet develop into something more as he continues to learn Pittsburgh's system.
4) Issues with the scheme
The Steelers' zone-blitzing scheme was once a novel rarity, not played by many in the league, but I think we've seen the rest of the NFL gradually catching up over the past three years. It's still difficult to face, but like an especially tough golf course, it's progressively easier to handle each time you take it on. Consider that from 2008 (when the Steelers won the Super Bowl) to 2010, they averaged 48 sacks per year. Since then, that average has dipped to 33, including this season's paltry total of 28.
Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is still brilliant, and linebacker coach Keith Butler is also very good. If it weren't for LeBeau, the Steelers would be in much worse shape than they are. I'm sure that the competitive LeBeau will adjust, perhaps by simplifying things -- the system is still complicated to learn, especially for newcomers like Williams -- in an attempt to prove any naysayers or doubters wrong.
Of course, it wouldn't shock me if, after the season, the Steelers parted ways with LeBeau, as when they ushered former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians into a "retirement" in 2012 rather than renew his contract. I think that would be just as big a mistake as it was to cut ties with Arians, who went on to become Coach of the Year with the Indianapolis Colts and land a job leading the Arizona Cardinals.
So what now?
As good as defensive coaches like LeBeau and Butler might be, they can't make a gourmet meal out of discount groceries. The bottom line for the Steelers is that they need better talent. They're likely to continue to have cap issues next year, so this means building through the draft.
The Steelers are still a good franchise, and the Rooneys are still good owners. We've seen defenses turn things around quickly in the NFL. Just as one or two deficiencies can sink a season, a handful of seemingly minor improvements can result in a big jump in wins. If they can put together a top-notch defensive draft and get some promising rookies in place, we can expect to see the Steelers' defense competing again, perhaps as soon as 2015.
Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.