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O. Henry, Ernest Tubb, Aaron Smith, Grey Poupon and the Aging Process.

It was the greatest American short story writer who first used the phrase. Erstwhile Pittsburgher William Sydney Porter, better known as O. Henry, wrote in "The Heart of the West," that "I looked around and found a proposition that exactly cut the mustard." That was in 1907, when "the mustard," was slang for "the genuine article."


It became part of the American language, and eventually part of the timeless C&W classic made famous by Ernest Tubb, among others. "You're a-gettin' too old to cut the mustard anymore." Google it. You'll love it, if there's even the smallest dash of country music in your soul. 


He's too old, too old He's too old to cut the mustard anymore He's a-gettin' too old, he's done got too old He's too old to cut the mustard anymore When I was young I had a lot of pep I could get around, I didn't need no help But since I'm old and a-gettin' gray The people all look at me and say He's too old, too old He's too old to cut the mustard anymore He's a-gettin' too old, he's done got too old He's too old to cut the mustard anymore


The question is whether it has become the theme song of the 2011 Steeler defense, and if opposing teams might consider playing it on their Jumbotrons the way the Steelers play Renegade.

There is no question that the Steeler defense is made up of men of the highest quality. They are smart and unselfish. They are, in fact, a band of brothers. Unfortunately, the brothers played three games more than most teams last year, and they are, by far, the oldest defense in the league. The lockout gave them time to rest, and the conventional wisdom was they would have a huge advantage over other teams because of their cohesiveness. Conventional wisdom was wrong. Dead wrong.


Perhaps the most painful thing I have ever watched as a Steeler fan was the Texans marching 120 yards downfield on the opening drive (including two penalties), and running successfully against the once-impregnable Steeler defense. Used to be you couldn't run on the Steelers. Now, good teams are doing so. 


The guys at the Steelers Lounge blog came up with a stat that says it all: In 2010, thru four games, opponents rushed 95 times for 249 yards. That's a 2.6 yard average. In 2011, thru four games, opponents rushed 100 times for 478 yards. That's a 4.7 yard average. Please pass the Tums. 

The greatness of the Steeler defense for the past five or six years has been the front three. There's no way individual stats can measure what Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel and their substitutes have accomplished, because they have controlled the line of scrimmage and cleaned up the blockers so that linebackers and defensive backs have made big plays.


The key to the success of Dick LeBeau's defense is stopping the run. Everything is predicated on that. It's all about second and long....so that you can blitz and force the turnover. It's about stopping them cold on third and short. If the Steelers lose first down to the running game, everything unravels. No team is very good if they're always facing second and four, and a three-four defense that can't control the line of scrimmage is going to spend a lot of time out on the field. 

 



What's missing most from this year's defense is what you seldom saw and took for granted. The domination of the front three in the trenches. And it has been heartbreaking to see the dropoff in production from three great and beloved warriors. Did last year's long season or season-ending injuries take too much out of them? Are they simply too old and too beaten up to cut the mustard any more? How much quicker and stronger did they used to be?  How much more explosive? And how much more quickly did they heal from injury?

 


The coaching staff and the front office knew this was coming. That's why they drafted defensive linemen in the first round of  two of the last three drafts. Nobody defies Father Time forever, except, of course, Coach Dad. 


I am still very much in the denial stage. Aaron Smith and James Farrior are the heart and soul of the team that I love. Brett Kiesel and Casey Hampton have been as dependable as the sunrise and sunset. There is an enormous amount of young talent to fill in the breach, but I'm not certain my elder warriors are ready to leave, nor am I confident that the young guys are ready. Change, somebody once said, is hard. 


There is no question that the Steelers' number one priority is to find some way to fix the offensive line. If not, visitation and funeral services for Ben Roethlisberger will probably take place in early November, just after Mr Lewis and Mr Suggs and Mr Ngata come to town. And Bruce Arians will have to open a new box of quarterbacks each week until the season mercifully ends. But even if Coaches Tomlin, Kugler, and Arians find some way to patch up the offensive line and get some consistent offense going, this team will not go beyond the first round of the playoffs - if that - unless they can stop the run. 


The Steelers' awful turnover ratio is a factor of the failures of the offensive line and defensive line. Which stands the best chance of rapid improvement?


There are far better personnel on the D, and Coach Dad showed Sunday in the second half he can adjust. The young guys - Hood, Heyward, and McLendon - have the ability and potential to step up. Don't underestimate the chemistry and the affection they have for Aaron Smith and Dick LeBeau. This group will not split apart. They will stick together.


On the offensive line, there is a serious shortage of talent. Coach Tomlin made it clear there's a complete re-evaluation going on, and he's not ruled out signing new players. Injuries have hurt, but it appears they overestimated what they have, and they may have boxed themselves in with all the big money signings. 


It's sad to see the swalwart defenders age, as we worry that they may be too old to cut the mustard any more. But even sadder and more alarming is that the offensive line was never be good enough to cut the mustard in the first place.

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