As the NFL continues to tick down the days until the news cycle picks back up when training camps around the league start to open toward the end of this month, every news outlet is attempting to fill the news void with whatever means possible. We covered one of these efforts yesterday when ESPN polled fellow AFC North writers on whom the Pittsburgh Steelers’ most feared player is.
The unsurprisingly most frequent answer was James Harrison, once a regular in the Pro Bowl and a former Defensive Player of the Year, holding the franchise record for the most sacks in a single season with 16 in 2008.
But the fact that that answer is so surprising, to me, is as much a commentary on how much further this defense has to go in order to get back to where they once were when Harrison was that fearsome player in 2008.
Admittedly, the veteran pass rusher has defied the odds in many ways, not the least of which being his ability to claim a starting job and post 5.5 sacks in 11 games after coming off the couch mid-season following retirement.
But the reality of the situation is that Harrison is projected to be a 37-year-old rotational—if not situational—player. And if that’s as scary as your defense gets, then that’s a problem, even if that player is James Harrison, whom even his position coach, Joey Porter, is not James Harrison any longer.
To be fair, one of the writers did choose Cameron Heyward after first throwing out the Harrison caveat, and when looking at this defense, it should be Heyward, at this current moment, who is the most feared player.
But this defense used to be full of fearsome players. Opponents once talked about not wanting to play against the Steelers defense. Running backs would grow weary of running up the middle by the end of games after taking a pounding from the front seven. That is not this defense.
The Steelers’ offense may be on the ascent, with the potential to rival the best in the game, but it does feel as though the defense still has a way to go yet before the team can challenge for another championship, and part of that is identifying the next generation of intimidators.
Lawrence Timmons may be a Pro Bowler, but his game has never been intimidation, for example. And it’s not going to come from the cornerbacks, either.
Pittsburgh is hoping to pair up a couple of hard-hitting safeties this season, one of whom is nicknamed ‘Headache’ for the reason that you might guess. Rookie outside linebacker Bud Dupree certainly has the physical characteristics of an intimidator. Perhaps Ryan Shazier, or even Stephon Tuitt, could help claim that mantle.
But if the Steelers hope to live up to their defensive reputation again, it needs to rest on a foundation that goes beyond Harrison’s legacy. For as impressive his productivity at this age might be, it’s not enough for a team that hopes to contend for a championship.