Remember when the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense was old? Remember all the 30-somethings roaming the field, many of them even lasting to their mid-30s in the starting lineup? Those days are clearly gone.
Consider that of the entire 90-man offseason roster, only 11 players are at least 30 years old, and two of them are specialists. Only three of them contribute on the defensive side of the ball, and only one of them will be in the starting lineup.
That single 30-year-old in the starting lineup is cornerback William Gay, who is coming off perhaps his best season, with a career-high three interceptions, each returned for a touchdown, and, as I reminded myself yesterday, he had a fourth interception in the first Bengals game that was wiped out by offsetting penalties.
The other two 30-something contributors, by the way, are James Harrison and Will Allen, both of whom have proven to be more than capable last season, and both of whom had starting experience last year. But they are now the exceptions to the rule.
The only other players even approaching 30 are nose tackle Steve McLendon and inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons, the latter of whom is coming off his first Pro Bowl season and certainly doesn’t look to be hitting a wall any time soon.
McLendon, of course, has had his share of injuries over the past two seasons as a starter, but his play on the field has been encouraging. If he can manage to keep his body fit and in working order, the defensive line will be in good shape.
Of the 11 projects defensive starters this season, four of them are 25 years old or younger, with Stephon Tuitt and Ryan Shazier both currently just 22 years old, though the latter will turn 23 on September 6.
When the starting defense takes the field on opening day, their projected average age will be 26 years and 100 days old. There may be many things that the Steelers can be criticized for when it comes to their defense over the past few years, but one of them certainly can’t be a willingness to get younger.
And this doesn’t include all of the encouraging youth being developed behind the starters, all with two years of actual experience or less, such as Sean Spence, Daniel McCullers, Bud Dupree, and Senquez Golson.
But as we all know, getting younger certainly doesn’t automatically translate into getting better. The Steelers have made a concerted effort to stack the defensive side of the ball with young talent over the course of the past couple of drafts, with five defensive selections in the first two rounds over the past three draft cycles.
The front office has done its job, at least on paper. Now it’s up to the coaching staff to get everybody headed in the right direction, and to develop the youth as quickly as possible without jeopardizing on-field performance.