Pittsburgh Steelers: Why the Steel Curtain Is Alive and Well in 2013

Joshua AxelrodCorrespondent IJune 20, 2013

Expect no letdown from the Steel Curtain in 2013.
Expect no letdown from the Steel Curtain in 2013.Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

All this talk about the Pittsburgh Steelers defense being washed up is absolutely ridiculous.

There is speculation every offseason that the Steel Curtain will crumble and finally start showing signs of its players’ ages. Like clockwork, the defense responds by being near the top in just about every major statistical category.

This year’s Pittsburgh nonbeliever is Warren Sapp, who called the Steelers defense “old and slow” in 2011 and did not back down when asked if he would still call them the same thing on NFL Network’s NFL Total Access.

“Old and slow? Yes I would,” he said. “Because seven of the 11 starters are 28 years or older, and that’s around the time, in this league, they go to questioning, you know, ‘Where’s his legs? Should we look for the backup?’”

Sapp is right about the age thing. Pittsburgh’s defense is full of veterans who have probably all lost half a step or so over the past few seasons. 

You would never be able to guess that though, based on the numbers. Pittsburgh had the top-ranked defense last season, finishing first in pass protection and second in rush stopping.

The Steel Curtain only allowed 4,413 total yards last season, 239 fewer yards than the Denver Broncos’ second-best overall defense. It only allowed an average of 275.8 yards per game, which was another league-leading effort.

So why does Sapp still insist on calling Pittsburgh’s defense out on its age? If anything, the Steelers have only gotten younger and more dynamic on that side of the ball.

Two older starters—35-year-olds James Harrison and Casey Hampton—are no longer with the team. They are being replaced by 25-year-old Jason Worilds and 27-year-old Steve McLendon, two young guns ready to prove themselves as legitimate starters.

The team’s best defensive player is inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons, who led the Steelers in interceptions and sacks last season. He is only 27 and will need to take on more leadership responsibilities going forward, something he is more than capable of doing.

Losing Keenan Lewis to the New Orleans Saints was a blow to Pittsburgh’s cornerback depth, but the Steelers have faith in 24-year-old Cortez Allen. If that organization trusts a player, chances are you should too.That is the only way to justify having to believe in William Gay again.

Pittsburgh used its 2013 draft to stock up on young defensive talent with the potential to make immediate impacts. Linebacker Jarvis Jones, safety Sharmarko Thomas and cornerback Terry Hawthorne could all be asked to step up when and if the starters get injured. If nothing else, the Steelers are not lacking youthful depth.

Then there are the old men.

Believe it or not, 33-year-old Larry Foote led the Steelers in tackles last year with 113 total. He chipped in 4.0 sacks for good measure. His snaps will probably decrease next season due to his age, but there is no reason to believe he cannot handle the workload for at least one more year.

LaMarr Woodley was hindered by injuries last season, which led to him not looking like the same guy who has been known to terrorize opposing quarterbacks. Considering he is only 28 and now completely healthy, expect a return to form in 2013.

34-year-old Brett Keisel has been the Steelers’ workhorse on the line for years. His numbers are never flashy, but there is no reason to believe he cannot produce another 46 tackles and 4.5 sacks. Plus, that beard is downright intimidating.

The Steelers secondary looks as strong as ever. That unit only gave up an average of 185.2 passing yards per game last season. Even though they may look shaky at times, they get the job done.

Ike Taylor can go from being a shutdown corner to getting stiff-armed by Demaryius Thomas in a split second, so do not expect his play to change. Same goes for Ryan Clark, who always plays at a high level unless Denver is involved. If these 33-year-olds can actually generate some turnovers for once, the Steel Curtain will be as scary as it has been in a while.

Steelers Nation should be concerned about 32-year-old Troy Polamalu’s health. He was burdened by calf injuries all of last season, rendering him almost entirely useless. It is too early to say his career is over, but it might be cut short if he cannot stay on the field this year.

If Polamalu is the Steel Curtain’s biggest question mark, Pittsburgh should be in good shape going into 2013.

The Steelers shed a few old guys and kept the ones that are most likely to maintain their levels of play. They added some youth in the draft and are giving a few unproven talents chances to cement their starter statuses.

Of course, we cannot forget the oldest and most important element in the Steelers’ defensive scheme: 75-year-old defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. As long as that man is calling the shots on the sidelines, you cannot underestimate Pittsburgh’s defense.

Unless there is an epidemic of injuries, do not expect the Steel Curtain to run out of gas in 2013. Until proven otherwise, the Steelers are the defensive standard in the NFL.