At the beginning of the Steelers/Jets telecast on CBS a couple of weeks ago, play-by-play announcer Jim Nantz noted that the Steelers had the oldest defense in the NFL. That wasn't really that surprising, considering that seven of the 11 starters in the base-defense are over the age of 30.
The defense is probably a little younger than it was the past few seasons when long-time veterans Aaron Smith, James Farrior and Chris Hoke were still on the roster and contributing. Still, though, seven defenders over the age of 30 is rather telling, and whether it's age or lack of execution, there is no question that the Steelers defense isn't what it once was despite finishing number one over all a season ago.
The defense has struggled a great deal this season, particularly in Pittsburgh's two losses. It is true that James Harrison hasn't played a down this season and that Troy Polamalu has missed the past two games, and their eventual returns (hopefully, in Harrison's case) should help the level of play. But even when 92 and 43 do return, at ages 34 and 31 respectively, will they ever again approach the same level of play that they did even a few years ago?
Most long-time Steelers fans remember the great defenses of the 70's and what they were able to accomplish. However, they probably also remember how quickly the defense deteriorated in the early 80's. The core group was together for a long time, and when it got old, it got old fast. Much like the 2012 unit, the 1980 Steelers defense had seven members over the age of 30, and the dominant defense that was on-display in the previous decade would soon regress to one that was"Soft and Cheesy."
Is that happening to this era's Steelers defense? I don't know, but I do know that the front office has gone about trying to restock the defense with talent and youth over the past half decade or so. In fact, in 2007, Mike Tomlin spent his first two picks as head coach of the Steelers on linebackers. Lawrence Timmons, an outside linebacker at Florida St., was drafted with the 15th overall pick and converted to inside linebacker with the Steelers. Lamarr Woodley, a defensive end at Michigan, was taken in the second round and converted into an outside linebacker. With 48 sacks so far in his career, it's safe to say that Woodley has more than carried on the great tradition at linebacker that was established decades ago by guys named Ham and Lambert. And just shy of his 28th birthday, he's certainly not one of the aging members of the unit. Woodley just signed a contract extension prior to the 2011 season, and barring any unforeseen career-altering injury, the position of left-outside linebacker should be locked down and secure for many more seasons.
That brings me to Timmons. Whenever you hear fans and teammates talk about Timmons, they get a gleam in their eye, and they gush about his potential. Ever hear a baseball fan slobber over a five-tool outfielder? "He can hit for average and power, has great speed and range in the outfield, and he's got a rocket for an arm." Timmons is the equivalent of a five-tool baseball player. There is no doubt that he's a great athlete and has the potential to be a great inside linebacker. Anytime the Steelers have to prepare for a Rob Gronkowski, or any of these new, freak-of-nature tight ends that have come into the NFL in recent seasons, Timmons' name always comes up as a guy who has the natural ability to hang with them in coverage--according to rivals.com, his 40 time in college was 4.62. This is just speculation on my part, but if the Steelers are planning on using a spy to keep Eagles quarterback Michael Vick in check this Sunday, Timmons is probably one of the people being considered for the job.
"He reminds me a lot of Troy. He makes plays the way Troy makes plays. He closes on ballcarriers and receivers the way Troy does because there's a lot of instincts Troy has that he has. He could get back there and play safety if he wanted to."
That is a quote from former Steelers linebacker James Farrior following Timmons' six year contract extension in August of last year, and it's a testament to what his teammates really think of his abilities.
Speaking of which, it wasn't long ago that Timmons' mates were predicting that he could follow Polamalu and Harrison as a Defensive Player of the Year.
Only problem is, in his sixth year in the league, Timmons has yet to really live up to his potential. He's had a moment here and there, but he's done nothing to suggest that he'll one day be regarded as one of the all-time great linebackers in Steelers history. As I said earlier, Timmons was converted from an outside linebacker once he became a Steeler and he no doubt needed time to adjust to his new role. Timmons appeared to have a bit of a break out year two seasons ago, when he recorded 135 tackles on the Steelers AFC Championship team. However, last season, he dipped back down to 93 tackles, which is closer to his typical season during his career. You might attribute that to having to fill in at other positions due to injuries (he failed to generate much of a pass rush playing outside linebacker while filling in for the injured Harrison), but so far this season at his usual position, Timmons has only recorded 12 total tackles, and other than the late hit on Mark Sanchez in week 2, there hasn't been even a sniff of an impact play. In fact, after recording a combined 15 sacks from '08-'10, Timmons only has two over the past 19 games.
Some might say that Timmons can't be as much of an impact player at inside linebacker, but he plays the mack position, and as Neal Coolong pointed out in this article from earlier in the year, it's a position geared toward athletic players who can pursue the football--Kendrell Bell was pretty impactful during his short time playing the position in Pittsburgh. Inside linebacker or not, the Steelers didn't select Timmons 15th overall if they didn't think he had the potential to be a high-impact player in their defense.
The good news is Timmons is still only 26 years old, and he has a lot of time left to get things together. The Steelers defense is aging, but it could get young in a hurry if Timmons can start to match Woodley's production and becomes the player everyone knows he can be.