“Old and Slow”, the phrase coined by the NFL Networks’ Warren Sapp last season, in reference to the Steelers slow start doesn’t apply quite so much now. The Steeler Nation was up in arms and even the players used it as somewhat of a rallying cry. A 12-4 regular season record, dual 1,000 yd. receivers, #1 pass defense in the league, #1 overall defense, and a QB that threw for over 4,000 yds. Stats like that would make you think they were a team poised for a future of domination, not one that was over the hill. While they still have their share of Bill Cowher holdovers, the youth movement is in full swing.
On offense, the Steelers certainly could not be called old, if anything they were largely a very youthful bunch with the exception of the now departed Hines Ward (35). With Hines no longer wearing the black ‘n gold, the oldest starters on the offense are now Roethlisberger, 30 years old and Heath Miller who will turn 30 this October. Should Max Starks return, he’s an unrestricted free agent now, he’ll also be in that club having just turned 30 this past January. It’s clear on offense that age is not an issue, with many recent draft picks in starting roles all over the place. The lack of a Hines Ward won’t change the dynamic of already young offense but it does bring the average age down just a tad. They key for them is to find balance, which in my opinion should be the new rallying cry for 2012. Well that and keeping Ben’s jersey from getting quite so dirty each Sunday but we won’t get into that right now.
On defense though, with Aaron Smith and James Farrior now gone, along with previously retired 11 year veteran Chris Hoke, the Steelers have gotten significantly younger in a many of days. Potsie is 37, Hokie and Smith are both 35. Now, Dick Lebeau’s group still has plenty of established veterans over that magical age but they’ve also begun a youth movement that will help them keep up with the track stars in today’s NFL offenses. Even though Polamalu, Keisel, Hampton, Clark, and Harrison aren’t exactly spring chickens they are still playing at a high level and overall pretty darn healthy or will be once the season starts. Keisel’s groin injury suffered in the Broncos playoff game shouldn’t be an issue once regular practices start again and Harrison’s back surgeries are long since in the rear view mirror.
Third year linebacker out of Utah, Stevenson Sylvester figures to make a run at the now vacant starting middle linebacker job next season. He’s still raw but did play in 15 games last season and with a full off season to work on his skills he may be ready to take the next steps. The Steelers still figure to address middle linebacker in the draft this April, and prospects like Dont’a Hightower are very intriguing I’m sure to Dick Lebeau and Keith Butler.
Ziggy Hood has found a home in Aaron Smith’s old spot and has been showing improved pass rush skills and an ability to disrupt the ground game before it gets started. Like Smith, Hood won’t get all the crazy stats and glory that the linebackers do but that’s not his job, or anyone’s on the Steelers defensive line. Even if he doesn’t make the play he’s shown an ability to force the flow into the waiting grasp of another teammate. Hood isn’t on the level of what Smith was in his prime but he’s solid and has room to grow. Cam Heyward will now be the primary backup on both sides of the line and since the Steelers employ a regular rotation to keep their players fresh, he’ll have his opportunities to get himself ready to eventually take over for Brett Keisel one day.
In 2011 the average age of the Steelers defense, among the starters, was 27.9 years of age. Even though that number won’t come down much with the loss of Smith and Farrior, the infusion of fresh faces, youth and speed should have a significant impact. At times they defense looked older than they were especially against teams with a high powered passing game. Other times they looked like the defense we’ve come to know and love throughout the years; the key for 2012 is finding a way to improve on that defense we’ve been accustomed to watching.