September 14, 2008
“Blitzburgh”, the name itself strikes fear into opposing offenses. The scheme built by defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau who now enters his 50th season in the NFL has seen many faces change over the years but one thing that remained constant is the intensity that his defense brings every week. Some of the great players in Steelers history have played under Coach Lebeau; names like Lloyd, Greene, Gildon, Lake, Woodson, Kirkland, Porter, Steed, and the list goes on and on. If there was ever a man whose defensive genius fit perfectly with not only a team but with a city and its fans, it’s Lebeau.
Now we fast forward to the 2008 version and even though some of the names have changed you can see that this group may have the potential to be something special. Players like James “silverback” Harrison for example bring back memories of the infamously intense Greg Lloyd. Harrison not only has the power and intensity like Lloyd had but the speed as well and the knack for getting to the Quarterback. With fan favorite Joey Porter now in Miami, coach Tomlin saw fit to upgrade the heart of the Steelers defense by grabbing 2 top prospects in the 2007 draft; Lamar Woodley & Lawrence Timmons. Woodley saw limited action last year in relief of then starter Clark Haggans and as the year moved along he became more and more comfortable and started to show what he’s capable of. Now with Haggans gone it’s Woodley’s turn to step into the role of starting Outside Linebacker opposite Harrison. The heart of a 3-4 defense is the linebackers and the 2 outside guys get the majority of the sacks by shear design of the defense so it’s obviously imperative that you have playmakers at these positions. So far what Woodley has shown us last year and early on in 2008 he’s ready for the challenge and the competition between he & Harrison for the most sacks in 2008 should be fun to watch as fans but miserable if you don’t wear black n gold come game time.
Farrior seems like the ageless wonder, just signing a brand new 5 yr extension barely a month ago he’s playing the best football of his career and is the unquestioned leader in the defensive huddle. James is without a doubt one of the best free agent pick-ups in the modern era and seems to have not lost a beat even what seems to be the twilight of his career. His counterpart in the middle of the Blitzburgh defense is Larry Foote, a serviceable and intelligent player who just comes to work and gets the job done. Each year even in the midst of player movement due to injuries or free agency Foote has been a constant along side Farrior. This year with the emergence of 2007 1st round draft pick Lawrence Timmons in a heated battle for the starting spot with Foote he still managed to hold off the up and comer and solidify his spot on the starting unit. That hasn’t stopped Timmons though who gets regular playing time during the game and is picking up more and more with each passing week. It’s probably a safe assumption that he will supplant Foote at some point possibly after this season is over if not before but in the mean time the team is the beneficiary because they now have solid depth which will prove invaluable as the year moves on.
Casey Hampton aka “the big snack” is as stout as ever. Even after getting a wake up call in training camp being on the PUP list due to his weight he has shown that he’s ready to go. He had as solid a game as you could ask for in week 1 vs. the Texans when he constantly stood his ground and forced any semblance of a Houston running game to go elsewhere. That “elsewhere” was right into the hands of a waiting Aaron Smith or Brett Keisel who also did their jobs and completely shut down any hope of Houston Quarterback Matt Schaubs’ delusion of having time to throw or the luxury of some time of running attack. In week 2 vs the Browns big Casey and company were ablet to shut down Jamal Lewis and really keep any semblence of a running game in check. It was evident last year that Smith is the most underrated defensive end in all of football and when he is not in the game the Steelers defense is not the same. His uncanny ability to stop the run and take on any would be opposing lineman is a thing of beauty to watch. He’s worth every penny they pay him and then some. The backups of this group were definitely in question heading into 2008; Travis Kirschke has chronic back issues and is getting older but still battles and playes hard, Ryan McBean failed to impress enough to even make the team this year but fortunately Nick Eason was very impressive in preseason and had a very solid game vs. Houston. He came into the in relief of Brett Keisel who injured his calf and got some real valuable experience. Chris Hoke is the best backup NT in the game and the team barely misses a beat when he is in the game.
The secondary was a bit of a question mark heading into 2008 as pro bowler and former 1st round pick Safety Troy Polamalu was coming off back-to-back injury plagued years. His performance or lack thereof in 2006 & 2007 was evident as the secondary struggled in his absence to pick up the pieces. Even when he was on the field during that time span he was a shell of his former self; missing tackles, over committing and getting run out of the play, and just generally being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Polamalu got back his roots as he went back to southern California to start up a more unconventional routine of workouts that he hoped would help him avoid injury better and increase his flexibility & stamina. Training camp saw Troy sitting out nearly the entire time with yet another injury and the fans raised questions if it might be time to cut ties with him. So far though, Polamalu showed that he’s ready to regain his pre-injury form and has 2 INT's so far this year along with laying some wicked hits that brought back memories of the Troy we’re all used to seeing.
Deshea Townsend is the elder statesman of the secondary and is the teams best pure cover man; both he and young star Ike Taylor work well together and should prove to be a formidable duo. Backup Bryant McFadden is in the final year of his deal and is looking to have a solid year in hopes of a big payday in 2009. Youngster Anthony Smith, best known for his big hits and big mouth was inactive in week 1 but make no mistake he’ll be an important player for the team as they seek to stay as healthy and intense in week 16 as they are week 1.
Overall this unit totally dismantled Houston in week 1 and played very well against Cleveland in the middle of the remnants of Hurricane Ike as they came up with big plays time and time again to thwart any thoughts of a Browns comeback. Only time will tell this year how good this unit is going to be but early indications are that they are going to be fun to watch if nothing else.