Steelers vs. Bengals: James Harrison represents the past while the future is becoming clearer

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Over the last few seasons, pundits have consistently claimed the Steelers' defense is too old. But the organization continues to pump fresh blood into the unit that makes the Steelers the Steelers.

When the Steelers take the field tonight against an orange-clad James Harrison, reality will set in -- if it hasn't already.This isn't the same team he was a part of. In fact, a lot of the defensive stars from Harrison's prime are gone.

Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, Jimmy Horseshoes.

Larry Foote may be headed for a "former Steeler" designation as well, despite his recent extension through 2015.

Troy may have broken off another Flying Mars Volta Cougar Jumpsack last week, but he isn't the same player he once was. He's still better than every other safety in the league, but the gap is getting smaller.

Brett Keisel's beard continues to get most of the attention, but he also happens to be one of the better 5-techs to have lined up for Dick LeBeau -- but he can't play forever. He'll turn 35 on Thursday.

The same can be said for Ryan Clark. He's been a leader for the defense for several years and continues to play a key role in the current iteration of Pittsburgh's bread and butter.

It's sad to watch them go. But the organization always finds a way to maintain a certain presence -- one that often casts an ominous shadow over their opponents' offensive game plan. Whether it's a first round pick like Olajuwon Timmons or an undrafted free agent like the emerging Steve McClendon, Pittsburgh seamlessly streams talent into its defense. The results have been pretty consistent --they've only been outside the top 10 in yards allowed twice (11th in 1999 & 12th in 1998) since 1993 and outside of the top 15 just 8 times since 1933. That's 80 years if you're counting.

So who's going to step up as players like Lamarr Woodley and Timmons become the sage, old veterans?

Who's going to fill the void Harrison left behind?

That question looks like it's already been answered by the Steelers most recent first round pick, Jarvis Jones. But the team has depth in their most disruptive unit. Jason Worilds may not have burst onto the scene like many hoped for after the team invested a 2nd rounder on him in 2010 Draft. He may still be a solid contributor, but James Harrison showed us that it doesn't take an early-round pedigree to dominate the edges of Leabeau's scheme. So the next Silverback may be bagging groceries somewhere right now. Woodley is the savvy vet now and Jones is a pretty solid heir apparent as the junior splash-mason in Black and Gold.

In the middle, Timmons has the reins doubled over tightly in his fists, but the future Buck to his Mack has yet to reveal himself. Maybe that role will be filled by Vince Williams or Kion Wilson. Maybe Kevin Colbert has his eye on a Buck prospect in the upcoming crop of college linebackers. The Rooneys have also shown that they will go after the right player on the open market, like they did when James Farrior became a free agent in 2002 -- though that method may be unlikely due to the team's touchy cap situation. Regardless what the player's name is or where he's playing at the moment, the Steelers will find him -- if they haven't already.

Casey Hampton's relatively tiny helmet was one of the highlights of the NFL over the last decade. His gigantic baby shtick will always bring with it a whimsical joy, except to the offensive linemen who were once tasked with blocking him. Big Snack was one of the premier nose tackles in the league for a long time, and he certainly helped perpetuate the myth that a player at his position must be a supermassive black hole for interior linemen. He gave other teams good reason to believe that. But Steve McClendon appears to have a different approach. He isn't a runt by any means -- 6'4" 320. But he's a playmaker in his own right. And Pittsburgh is hoping he can man the post for the foreseeable future.

Maybe Keisel can play at a high level until he's 40. Probably not though. The future 5-tech tandem may or may not include Cameron Heyward and Ziggy Hood. Both are former 1st round picks -- Colbert hasn't exactly been stopping strangers in the street to brag about them. But it took Keisel some time to earn his job. They can't all be Aaron Smith. Maybe Lebeau's system just needs to incubate in the average 5-tech's mind for a few years before it clicks into place. The D-line has always been a source of strength in this system, if only to free up linebackers to inflict the cataclysm. But Lebeau has said recently that he'd like the position to be more of a disruptive force going forward. That may be a deciding factor in Hood and Heyward's future and perhaps, the strategy Pitt will use in replacing them.

The secondary will never be the same when Troy is gone. This seems like the genesis for a lot of the excitement about Shamarko Thomas. He'll never be Troy. No one will, but if he can be a playmaker in the secondary, the defense can maintain its stratified attack.

The Steelers have a checkered past at the cornerback position, but it's never held them back from being effective as a unit. Maybe a revolutionary corner is the next trick up Dick's sleeve, but his crew can remain the incumbent elite, even if the status quo is simply conserved.

The future of the defense is slowly coming into focus. There has never been an organizational consistency like the Steelers have assembled over the last two decades. And there's no reason to believe the steady stream of talent is going to become a trickle -- even after Lebeau leaves. The Pittsburgh organization has shown the NFL that, if you know what you're doing and you value something enough, there doesn't have to be such a drastic incongruity from year to year. The Steelers defense isn't made up of superstars. It makes them. And takes them away. The details don't matter.

It just exists, right up in your face.

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