Though they're still in the heart of the AFC North race, the Steelers are starting to look too old to compete again. - Jason Hirschhorn, SB Nation, Dec. 2, 2014
Humorous are the narratives established by those who do not watch more than one team (the Packers, in this case).
The oldest of all is the "Steelers are old" bit. It played well for a while. It was easy and convenient for fan writers excited about their own team's success to dismiss anyone else due to one possibly true angle. It fills content.
Will Graves of the Associated Press in Pittsburgh penned an excellent feature regarding the youth of the Steelers - which has been the real struggling characteristic of the Steelers over the past two seasons. This time last year, the Steelers were starting to reap some benefits from the younger players they had to force into the lineup (oddly for Mr. Hirshhorn, the Packers became the first 100-yard victim of Le'Veon Bell in Week 16 last year, also the game in which Antonio Brown broke the club's old receiving yards record. Bell was 21, Brown was 25, the Steelers win the game 38-31).
Ultimately, they couldn't make up a brutal 0-4 start to the year, which was categorized largely by both youthful mistakes and aged lack of athleticism.
Pittsburgh has won three games in a row, and staring down both their first four-game winning streak since 2012 and first division championship since 2010, the team sits with its best record since 2011, and a chance to grab the third seed in the AFC Playoffs.
But they're old. I read someone who wrote that once, so it must be true. Do "old" teams outscore their opponents 35-13 in the fourth quarter of games? The Steelers have done that in their three-game winning streak, which has featured plays being made in all three phases of the game. Young safety Shamarko Thomas is excelling in special teams, helping lock down Pro Bowl return man Devin Hester in Week 15 followed by limiting the Chiefs' league-leading return units to minimal gains.
The 21-year-old rookie Stephon Tuitt blasted Chiefs RB Jamaal Charles, forcing a fumble that was recovered by second-year linebacker Vince Williams - a key turning point in a game in which the Steelers' defense (currently boasting a starting group of players at an average age of 27) shut down the Chiefs' high-powered running game.
Nevermind age. This has been an issue of technique, above all else. The Steelers gambled when it released veteran inside linebacker Larry Foote this offseason, looking to thrust 28-year-old Lawrence Timmons into the spotlight as the key inside linebacker in one of the league's poorer run defenses in 2013. Timmons held the same role the previous year, but along side him was Williams, a sixth-round draft pick, replacing a smart, scheme-savvy Foote who went down with a season-ending injury in Week 1.
They hoped to replace Foote with rookie Ryan Shazier, a 21-year-old hyper-athletic Ohio State product. Instead, what they've found is Williams' experience from last year served him well. He may be the Steelers' most improved defensive player. Splitting snaps between Williams and Sean Spence, a 24-year-old linebacker coming off a significant knee injury two years ago, are getting the job done.
It's not just the linebackers, either. With a healthy Steve McLendon, and Tuitt's full-time insertion into the starting lineup, the Steelers' defense has suddenly climbed to sixth in the NFL against the run, allowing just under 100 yards a game. They were 21st last year at 115.6. Tuitt has started the last three games, and the Steelers have won all three, allowing just 222 yards on 55 carries - that's just 74 yards a game.
The four yard a carry average may carry with it some concern, and it speaks to a unit that certainly isn't unbeatable. The more snaps these players are getting, the more they are improving.
They'll head into Sunday's AFC North division championship game against the Bengals needing to stop another excellent running team. They allowed runs of 20 yards (to quarterback Andy Dalton) and 15 yards (to Jeremy Hill) but allowed just 86 yards on 21 carries - paltry numbers considering the Steelers put 42 points on them. It will be another challenge to a strongly improving run defense.
One that appears to be getting better with less age.