Talking about the relative contributions of team management and the offense to a successful season is all well and good, but for generations the heart of Steelers football has been the state of the defense. There are some obvious things that bode well for Dick LeBeau's operation in 2013, and I'll get to that, but I think some subtle factors, at least to me, may be most telling of what may be coming this season.
Farewell Casey Hampton and James Harrison. Of course these two have been among the more important faces of the franchise for over a decade and I assume that most of us are sad to see them go. However, I would have thought that there would have been more hand wringing over their departure given the fact that the issues of separation had more to do with finances rather than any dramatic reduction in skill. Instead, while we fuss and fret over the state of the offense and special teams, we are (and please correct me if I'm wrong) pretty much okay with where the defense is at as of this moment in time.
There was some early concern over whether Harrison could be effectively replaced, and the general health of the linebacker corps altogether, but that perception has since flipped 180 degrees. The feeling now is that of a three man traffic jam to fill two starting positions at outside linebacker, and though no one is saying that Harrison has been completely replaced or surpassed, they aren't saying that the position has taken a step backward either.
Hampton is gone, yet when has the regard for the defensive line been higher? We started the off season excited about Steve McLendon, but also concerned about how the hole (pun intended) left by the absence of Hampton would be filled. With an aging Brett Keisel and unfriendly questions directed at the play of Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward, there were some dark thoughts massing about the immediate future of this group. The theme of depth has been running through the analysis of the 2013 Steelers. That is decidedly not the problem here.
LT flies under the radar. Somewhere over the course of the summer I saw where someone referred to Lawrence Timmons as 'LT 2.0'. It took me a bit before I realized that the comparison was being made to Lawrence Taylor. At that point the football purist in me kicked in; 'Ridiculous!', 'Blasphemy!' And then I shift my perspective a bit and started paying attention. The notion isn't nearly as absurd as it seemed at first blush. Timmons, whom was being referenced to as recently as a year ago as a potential bust, is really, really good. Reading the assessments of teammates, watching him play, especially when Troy was out last year he was clearly the most impressive athlete on the field for the defense. And now that Troy is back its not as though Timmons has gone into eclipse. In fact, there were a few sublime moments during the preseason when LT, Troy and the rejuvenated LaMarr Woodley were on the field together doing their respective things that I was reduced to thinking 'Damn, they can't stop these guys'.
The situation with the defense is different than that of the offense when it comes to the issue of depth. They O line has a bunch of really good front line players, but then behind them is the abyss. Last year LeBeau put together a number one ranked defense minus his superstars (Polamalu, Woodley and Harrison). He might be able to do so again this year if necessary, but the argument for the Steelers going into the playoffs is much more persuasive if they can keep their front line guys healthy for the most part. But its not just the established stars. This group can be a surprise because the world still thinks this unit is old when it is not. If Timmons can fly under the radar, then you can be sure that it will be quite some time, regardless of their level of production, before players like McLendon, and Cortez Allen will be recognized and appreciated. Also, the combination of ageism and the tendency to project the wrong conclusions when a player suffers through an extended injury will serve to have some to write off Troy, Ryan Clark, Keisel and even Ike Taylor prematurely.
However, the biggest challenge to this defense is that the league itself has basically declared war on this side of the ball. The NFL isn't even pretending to be even handed in its promotion of the game. It clearly will give the offense whatever advantages it needs to get their numbers. Clark's frustration with the handcuffs being placed on defensive secondaries is appropriate. What in God's name are they supposed to do? Given how I began this article, if its war on defense, then you might as well say that its war on the Steelers.
Defensive line. It could be argued that if they had a competition for most under appreciated employee in the Steelers organization that assistant head coach John Mitchell would be one of the favorites to win. This may be, in part, based upon the relatively bland and thankless task the defensive line is required to perform in the LeBeau defense; namely to make the linebackers look good. (I played defensive line in college in a similar system and it pissed me off. If I had wanted to totally submerge my ego for the good of the team I would have played offensive line.) Two things stand out when looking at this group. It appears that, in a nod to the type of talent they have on board, the line will be allowed to be more aggressive. This can only result in severe heartburn for offensive coordinators. It allows McLendon and Hood, in particular, to play to their strengths.
The other thing is how deep this group is. The fact that Ta'amu is gone and Brian Arnfelt doesn't have a helmet is remarkable to me. It also goes a way to alleviate one concern in the transition from the Hampton era. A question that is currently unanswerable is whether McLendon can maintain through the wear and tear of a full season. Right now I'm comfortable with the idea of going at least five and probably six deep during the course of a game. Staying fresh is less of a problem.
Linebackers. I thought earlier in the spring that Jarvis Jones might have been over hyped. I felt he had a chance to be pretty good eventually, but I didn't think it could happen this year unless it was very late in the season. I thought the only reason that people were talking him up is that some weren't that crazy about Jason Worilds, and were hoping, unrealistically, that J. Jones would come along and just push Worilds out. I admit to being at least partially wrong. Jones is certainly a star in the making and he's likely to begin having a significant impact sooner rather than later.
This is not to say, by the way, that there is anything particularly wrong with Worilds. I'm just a little disoriented because I could swear that it was just weeks ago that we were sweating about the lack of depth at linebacker. Now players like Marshall McFadden, Adrian Robinson and Brian Rolle are gone, Alan Baxter, after an impressive camp can't get a hat, and somewhere down the line it may be possible that there will be a debate over Vince Williams vs. Sean Spence; Florida State vs. Miami. An eventual lineup of Woodley, Timmons, Williams (taking the least controversial route) and Jones would, not this year but perhaps soon, be rather impressive.
Secondary. Remember a couple of years ago when everyone was cursing and grinding their teeth over the defensive secondary? Ah, the good old days. And thank you Carnell Lake. Not that they are not without their challenges. There really should be a telethon to combat Ike Taylor Stone Hands Disease, which unfortunately, shows signs of being contagious. But, on the other hand that's why they're not wide receivers. The lineup of Taylor, Allen, Clark and Polamalu could be the most impressive since the days when Lake and Woodson were playing. And I particularly like the promise I see in Shamarko Thomas and Robert Golden.
But the real key here is not in focusing on the various parts of this defense which is impressive enough. Rather it is the possibility of the synergy that could be created. This defense has flourished in the past despite its flaws; weakness in the secondary many years, last year a weak pass rush due to the injuries sustained by the outside linebackers. Now, take that aggressive defensive line in combination with a highly talented linebacking corps, in combination with a highly competent secondary, in combination with Troy doing his thing. The sum of the parts is pretty cool, but the whole could something else altogether. We'll see.
Special teams. Special teams is the stepchild that seems to only earn our attention when it misbehaves. Examine a little closer and it serves as the glue that can make life easy or impossible for the other two legs of the stool, offense and defense. Dick LeBeau and Todd Haley are consistently in our conversations but what about Danny Smith (or his predecessors)? We're trained to track the issues and components of the offense and defense, special teams is more nebulous.
Perhaps the greatest level of misunderstanding is that many of the reserves chosen for a team is based, not on their ability to contribute to the other phases but for their utility in the special teams game. As the Steelers Digest's Bob Labriola has pointed out, instead of using the term 'reserves' we might be better served if we designated offensive, defensive and special teams starters. Further obscuring matters is the fact that the components of this aspect of the team are still being assembled as I write.
So besides Shaun Suisham who despite his checkered past continues to seem comfortably consistent in his place kicking, and may have even figured out how to extend his range (his only weakness last season) this summer, I am reluctant to say much about this aspect of the game beyond 'we'll see'. I can't begin to pretend to understand what is going on with the punting and why Zoltan Mesko is a superior option to Butler or Moorman. The failed Reggie Dunn experiment was a bit of a disappointment, but it is possible that some combination of LaRod Stephens-Howling and Markus Wheaton could make us forget all about that. We know that players like Curtis Brown and Kion Wilson impress in this phase of the game and are probably a big reason they made the 53. Beyond that I'm just guessing.
The good news is that they clearly aren't standing pat and hoping that things will just work out. There is an aggressiveness in how the team has approached this week that is intriguing and hopeful to me. They are attacking their problems.
Summary. I want to end like I began. I am not saying what I think will happen this season, just a best case scenario of what can happen in a fully realistic way, and in many respects, validated by history. If you have read some of my other stuff you will recall that I am superstitious about the connection between how the team is perceived and their chances of success. I like the whole flying under the radar thing, and based upon that things couldn't be progressing any better.
That is until today. There were some signs that folks were catching on. One writer at SI.com had the Steelers making it to the Super Bowl this year. But then this morning (Thursday) Bill Barnwell of Grantland blew the whole thing out of the water. He's listed the Steelers as one of eight teams that will contend for the Super Bowl, saying things like the following.
This is how things go for the Steelers. They have had two consecutive .500-or-worse seasons exactly two times since Watergate. This 8-8 season was the first time they've failed to post a winning record since Roethlisberger arrived into town. They win and win and win and then, if there is a brief respite from the winning, they get back to it like nothing ever happened, like they just needed to replace a lightbulb or snake the toilet. It's no accident that this happens to the Steelers, who have drafted and developed young players for 40 years like nobody else in pro football. In fact, that losing season usually serves as a wake-up call to move on from the successes of the past and bring along some of that young talent. That's what Pittsburgh will do in 2013. It will work.
And then he goes on and says everything I would have so instead of doing all that writing I'll simply link the article and add 'Amen'.