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Too old? Too young? Steelers say defense is just right

PITTSBURGH -- James Harrison has spent all training camp trying to answer questions on whether the Pittsburgh Steelers defense is veteran or -- with eight starters past their 30th birthday heading into Sunday's season opener against the Baltimore Ravens -- just plain old.

The former NFL Defensive Player of the Year is quickly running out of patience.

"How many times have you heard that a defense is just right? Never," Harrison said. "You never hear that a defense is just the right age to be playing good ball. It's either too young or too old, and I've been hearing that for the last few years."

He's going to have to endure it for at least one more.

The defending AFC champions had the league's top scoring defense last season and the Defensive Player of the Year in safety Troy Polamalu. In a rare sign of continuity, all 11 starters return.

Whether they return to the same level of dominance remains unclear. The Steelers took it easy on the 33-year-old Harrison, who played only sparingly in the preseason while recovering from a pair of procedures on his back. He still endures occasional shooting pain in his legs that he says will never truly go away and has taken to acupuncture, posting pictures of needles spread across his body on his Facebook page.

"It lasts maybe four to five hours," Harrison said. "I started doing that last year, and I think that's really the thing that got me through (the season) with my back the way it was."

It's a new-age treatment for an old-school player, which is why coach Mike Tomlin isn't worried whether Harrison will be ready to play on Sunday. Though Harrison claims he's 80-85 percent, his coach isn't buying it.

"I'd imagine he is sandbagging," Tomlin said. "James Harrison likes to play and we expect James Harrison-like play."

The Steelers will likely need it if they want to beat the Ravens for the seventh time in last nine meetings. They'll also need their banged up secondary to get up to speed quickly.

Cornerback Ike Taylor hasn't played in a month after breaking his left thumb in the preseason opener against the Washington Redskins. Taylor, who had a pin removed from his thumb on Tuesday, missed only two days of practice while playing with a bright green cast on the busted digit, a color selected by his son, Ike Jr.

Taylor, who signed a four-year contract with the Steelers just before camp started rather than test the free agent market, doesn't expect his thumb to be back to normal for awhile. The way he figures it, he's so rarely been completely healthy during his career he doesn't really notice the pain.

"Guys really aren't 100 percent during the season anyway," Taylor said. "So, I had to get in the right mindset."

He'll wear some sort of protective gear on Sunday and is still a little uncertain as to how it will affect his ability to tackle.

"This is a different obstacle for me, so learning to adjust to this obstacle is a lot different for me," Taylor said. "I've had to adjust my training and everything, but it's made me more mentally tough, I think."

Fellow cornerback Bryant McFadden, bothered by a nagging hamstring all camp, will also start. So will Polamalu, who showed flashes of his old self in a victory over the Philadelphia Eagles three weeks ago but otherwise took it easy -- by his standards anyway -- while recuperating from a strained Achilles that slowed him toward the end of last season.

Tomlin believes his defense is as close to healthy as it can get. He's well aware his defensive stars are closer to the end of their careers than the beginning. He also doesn't care.

"I know that the age has been something of noteworthy, something to talk about," Tomlin said. "But when I look at them I don't see age and I don't see dollar signs. I look at guys that put their head in the pile and are committed to doing their job to the standards we hold them to."

Baltimore's defense has its own share of guys with more than a few gray hairs, namely 36-year-old Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed, who turns 33 on Sunday. Yet the Ravens have also bolstered their roster with youngsters like 23-year-old nose tackle Terrence Cody.

Pittsburgh's true youth movement is probably a year or two away, though third-year defensive end Ziggy Hood and rookie Cam Heyward have shown signs of picking up where the likes of Harrison and Polamalu leave off.

Their time will come, but just not yet.

The window on the current group may be closing -- it's uncertain how many more seasons Harrison, 36-year-old linebacker James Farrior, 35-year-old defensive end Aaron Smith and 34-year-old nose tackle Casey Hampton can keep playing. Smith and Hampton were both slowed with nagging injuries during camp, though Farrior looked just fine, perhaps because Tomlin says the 15-year veteran is "genetically blessed."

It takes more than good genes, however, to survive what the Steelers hope will be a season that lasts until February. The defense will be one step closer to AARP cards by then. Don't expect age to be an excuse if Pittsburgh doesn't make it to the Super Bowl in Indianapolis.

And while Harrison is growing weary of the questions, his coach is not. Tomlin would rather they keep coming.

"We are not fighting any stereotypes or darts being thrown our way, usually they provide a positive energy for us," Tomlin said. "So keep talking about how old they are. I appreciate that. You make my job easy."

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press

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