Contributions from rookies in a rookie-adverse defense helping Steelers climb out of early hole

Vincent Pugliese

The Steelers have had an issue with age this season, but it's the relative lack of it, not the height of it, that's been the problem. That problem is quickly fixing itself, and the Steelers are climbing the defensive statistical leaders list.

For all the savagery bestowed upon the Steelers' defense through its first six games (2-4) this season, it holds a quiet secret.

It isn't as bad as many think.

Statistically, the Steelers' defense is allowing 306.8 yards per game - the sixth-best mark in the NFL. The passing defense is fourth, allowing 197.5 yards per game. Things fall off a bit in terms of run defense - 109.3, 19th int he NFL - and scoring defense could be better (22 points a game, tied for 13th in the league with Oakland, their Week 7 opponent), but the thing is, the Steelers defense is doing it in a way it hasn't for basically the entire tenure of Dick LeBeau.

They're playing young players.

The whole "Old and Slow" bit has become cliche. The problem early this year, when the team was on a three-game slide after having just allowed 40 points to the Bears (27 on their defense, 13 points coming directly from two turnovers returned for scores with one extra point). The situation wasn't helped by allowing 34 points to a Vikings team that still boasts their 34-27 win over the Steelers as its only victory this season.

Since then, though, the Steelers have allowed 22 points in wins over the Jets and Ravens, and allowed an average of 277 yards in those games.

The real issue was LeBeau figuring a way to change the tire while the car was still moving. The unexpected insertion of Vince Williams into the lineup for injured veteran Larry Foote, along with the increase in snaps and starting role given to Jarvis Jones is now being compounded by the increased presence of Shamarko Thomas in the secondary.

In an effort to mask the limitations of Williams in the win over Baltimore, the Steelers played Troy Polamalu at an inside linebacker position opposite Lawrence Timmons. That gave them an opportunity to use Thomas in more of a pure strong safety position while still keeping free safety Ryan Clark back deep.

One way or another, for one reason or another, the Steelers are playing rookies in a defense that has previously been known to be as rookie-adverse as any other unit in the league.

The veterans are learning to play around it. Maybe even learning to play with it, or despite it. While Jones is still learning the nuances of pass rushing - few rookies come in to a defensive end or outside linebacker position and find a ton of success in their first season - Thomas has shown some outstanding run-stopping ability. Williams, who's played more snaps than Thomas and only six a game fewer than Jones, has adjusted to the speed of the game, and is emerging as a fiery component to an improving defense.

Now, with creative wrinkles such as the Polamalu Nickel, and the increasing level of production from rookies, the Steelers' defense is beginning to find its groove.

It will need to continue improving if it will contribute to the team digging itself out of the 0-4 hole it created, and it can do that as soon as they add a takeaway element to their game.

They got two turnovers against the Jets, but none against the Ravens - their fifth game this year without a takeaway. Without stealing possessions, the pressure on the Steelers' offense is too high. While the defense has improved quite a bit, the fact the offense hasn't turned the ball over is a big part of their two-game winning streak. Getting those plays, whether they come from old or young players, will determine how long this streak will last.

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