Pittsburgh Steelers  

 

Pittsburgh Steelers transitioning to younger, faster defense

PITTSBURGH -- In the soaring old cathedral and on the steaming gridiron, Pittsburgh marked the inevitable passage of time this week. Churches and football fields are both places for worship in this city. The bishop who led Tuesday's funeral mass for legendary coach Chuck Noll was handed a Terrible Towel as he stepped out into the sunshine, so it was fitting that, hours after former Steelers gathered to lay Noll to rest, the current iteration of the team went to practice -- the generational shift apparent in both places.

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This season, the Steelers will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first of four Super Bowls won by Noll's teams. That is a lifetime ago for the current players, very few of whom even met Noll. But the 2014 version of the Steelers feels far removed even from their very recent contemporaries, even from the group that was last written off as old and slow -- in 2011, when Pittsburgh finished with the best defense in the league for an astonishing fifth time in 11 seasons.

But this time, the Steelers really were put out to pasture. Two 8-8 seasons with a defense that generated just 10 interceptions in each led to a sweeping reconstruction that has infused the D with youth and speed, generated fresh excitement around the team and left the few remaining long-timers looking around in wonder. For a franchise that values stability and consistency as much as this one does, and that kept many of the pieces of its vaunted defense together as long as it did, the NFL's penchant for personnel shuffling can still seem foreign. One jarring reminder of how very dramatically the times have changed: At lunch this week, Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu were being regaled with stories by Joey Porter, the stellar linebacker who was on the Steelers' all-decade team for the 2000s, who is now a coach.

"We were very, very fortunate that a lot of our players played a long and wonderful career, played excellently for us, but in a matter of days, years, ticks of the clock, you're going to have different people," defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. "We were holding off as long as we could because those guys were very great players and they are difficult to replace. Some of these young guys are going to do a good job of doing exactly that."

Polamalu, the safety who has long been the linchpin of LeBeau's defense, rejoined the team for the first time this offseason this week, his long hair streaked with gray. His locker remains in a corner to the left of the locker room's entrance, but not much else seems familiar. Just three lockers away sits rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier, whose speed likely has LeBeau deep in his wizard's lair crafting ways to use him. But Ryan Clark, with whom Polamalu teamed at safety for eight seasons, is gone. So is Brett Keisel, who spent 12 years at defensive end. Before them, it was James Harrison and James Farrior and Casey Hampton and Aaron Smith -- all pillars of the defense, all sent on their way. A lot of institutional knowledge -- to say nothing of Super Bowl rings -- have walked out the door, challenging those left behind to reconstruct again a defense that for decades has given identity to the Steelers. This is, after all, Blitzburgh.

"It's strange to be the oldest, most experienced guy in this locker room," Polamalu said. "I never thought that would happen."

Then Polamalu gestured to the chair next to his, where Jerome Bettis, the Steelers' long-time running back used to sit.

"Jerome was here and it seems like yesterday," Polamalu said. "He's one of the greatest running backs ever to play the game. He's old. And I hope one day I can get old, and here I am. I'm old, too."

The Steelers can only hope that the newer crop grows as old and remains as productive as Polamalu has. Last season, renewed health -- facilitated by his offseason training sessions with Marv Marinovich -- allowed him to play effectively in all 16 games, with many of the snaps coming with Polamalu lined up as a linebacker. The Steelers hope their new faces will relieve Polamalu of that responsibility and allow him to return to his regular strong safety position.

Much of the preseason storyline for Pittsburgh will revolve around Polamalu's mesh with Mike Mitchell, the free agent safety the Steelers acquired this spring. Mitchell is fast and smart, like Polamalu, but he will be just the third free safety Polamalu has paired with in his dozen years with the Steelers, and the two had not met in person until Tuesday. Still, the Steelers are counting on Mitchell's playmaking ability -- he had 3.5 sacks and four interceptions last year, his only campaign with the Carolina Panthers -- to invigorate a defense that had come to seem a tick too slow, a step too off the play in the last two years.

Mitchell said that the new-look roster constructed this offseason in Pittsburgh reminds him of last year's assemblage in Carolina, where the defense finished second in yards and points allowed and had 20 interceptions.

"I wasn't here before and it's like when you're getting into a new relationship -- you don't ask about the past," Mitchell said. "There's definitely some speed. I played with some fast guys in Oakland and fast guys in Carolina. This kind of reminds me of the defense in Carolina; we had athleticism at every position. It's the same way here. I think with our athleticism, we have the athleticism to be a top-three defense."

That would be a marked improvement for a defense that was first overall in points and yards allowed in 2011, was sixth in points and first in yards allowed in 2012, but plunged to 14th in points and 13th in yards allowed last season. Mitchell, though, is only part of the plan to fix that. Shazier, the first-round draft pick, is expected to play inside linebacker with Lawrence Timmons, and the rookie has already caused a stir because his speed is likely to allow LeBeau to open up the playbook. The defensive maven said this week he thinks Shazier is one of the fastest linebackers in the league. The Steelers were attracted to him during the pre-draft evaluations by how quickly he got to the quarterback when he blitzed at Ohio State. LeBeau is clear about his intentions for Shazier: He can cover and play any back or tight end one-on-one. And he will, of course, blitz.

While Polamalu was quick to caution against the enthusiasm for pure speed -- he noted that putting Usain Bolt on the field would not necessarily make the Steelers a good team -- it is obvious that getting faster was a key component of Pittsburgh's offseason plans. LeBeau believes a team can never have too much speed, because the faster defenders are, the more mistakes they can make up for. He predicts that the Steelers' defense will be fast enough to catch the ball on interception opportunities -- provided they can get everyone going in the right direction.

With so many new faces, that might seem like a daunting if, considering the complexity of LeBeau's zone-blitz scheme. But LeBeau, at age 76 and in his 55th year in the NFL, can take the very long view of the Steelers and their inexorable shift to the future. After all, when this team was being written off in 2011 -- NFL Media's Warren Sapp famously inflamed the locker room when he declared that it was over for Pittsburgh's defense -- LeBeau had to hold the unit together with the football equivalent of duct tape, using nine starting lineups in 16 games and deploying the same four starting linebackers -- the bulwark of the 3-4 defense -- just five times. He is used to the adjustments required by time.

In hindsight, the first signs of decline were upon that group. Pittsburgh forced just 15 turnovers in 2011, versus 35 in 2010. The result was that the Steelers feasted on teams with inept offenses and inexperienced quarterbacks. They struggled, though, against the game's elite. And that is simply not good enough in Pittsburgh, where being elite has been the norm since Noll changed the team's fortunes in the 1970s, and where the AFC North seems open for the taking, especially after the Steelers made a strong second-half run at a playoff spot last year (before ultimately falling just short).

"We got a first-round pick last year (Jarvis Jones), a first-round pick this year (Shazier), and we lost some wonderful, All-Pro players," LeBeau said. "It's accurate to say we are in transition, but we're certainly further down the road than when Farrior and Smith and Casey had to retire. The whole thing has been a process of changing the personnel. Yes, we're still in transition, but we're nowhere near where we were when all those guys had to leave."

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At the end of the 2011 season, just days before the Steelers' vulnerabilities were laid bare by Tim Tebow in the playoffs, Farrior said something prophetic about his old-guard defense.

"We're going to keep going on until we can't go anymore," Farrior told me then.

Now the Steelers will try to go -- faster -- as the generations give way to the next.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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