Get ready for camp: Steelers defensive preview
Tuesday, July 22, 2008 | Posted by Kyle Chrise
[url="http://www.realfootball365.com/index.php/articles/steelers/12138"]http://www.realfootball365.com/index.ph ... lers/12138[/url]
The Pittsburgh Steelers are under a week away from training camp, and the NFL's best defense during the 2007 regular season has 10 starters returning. That doesn't mean there won't be some big defensive decisions made at camp. Here's a quick look.
All three starters on the D-line are expected to be healthy and ready to go. Left end Aaron Smith is said to be completely recovered from biceps surgery. Nose tackle Casey Hampton and right end Travis Kirschke join him in the trenches. They're aging but solid, and backups Nick Eason and Chris Hoke are both capable veterans.
If Penn State is called 'Linebacker U,' then the Steelers should be referred to as 'Linebacker Inc.' Pittsburgh's system is about to produce the next generation of the Steel Curtain linebacking corps, one that could come to define the Mike Tomlin era. The most exciting battle at camp is at inside linebacker between established vet Larry Foote and Tomlin's first draftee as head coach, last year's first-rounder, Lawrence Timmons.
LaMarr Woodley, a second-year player who had four sacks in 80 defensive snaps as a rookie, is poised to become a starter at outside linebacker. Now a starter, this camp could see the birth of a new Steeler star.
Pro Bowler James Harrison and defensive captain James Farrior round out the starting four. The trio of Harrison, Woodley and Timmons could be the identity of Blitzburgh for years to come. Another linebacker who will be interesting to watch this camp is third-round rookie Bruce Davis, who played defensive end at UCLA and was great at getting to the quarterback. Fans will soon see if his stunning first step translated to the pros; watch for him this preseason as a rusher in some dime packages.
The biggest camp battle in the secondary will center on the No. 2 corner position, and the two combatants are 11-year vet Deshea Townsend and fourth-year defender Bryant McFadden, who has all the tools to be a solid starter. McFadden has good size (6-0, 190), excellent speed, incredible leaping ability and a fierce attitude. The problem is that he hasn't put it all together over the course of an entire season. McFadden was a nickel back during his rookie campaign, playing in the final 13 games and making a season-saving deflection (here@2:05) against the Colts in the playoffs. McFadden won a starting job toward the end of his second season, but when Tomlin took over in 2007, he chose the more consistent Townsend. McFadden has been taking this battle seriously this offseason, joining teammates Taylor, Farrior and Santonio Holmes at Tom Shaw's training camp in the offseason.
Compared to McFadden, Townsend doesn't have high-end speed, great athleticism or towering size. But he makes up for it with his head and heart. The Steelers have drafted a few corners over the years to replace him, but Townsend has held them all off. In his 11 years with Pittsburgh, he's been a starter for the last four and has had seven seasons with multiple interceptions and five with multiple sacks. Even if McFadden wins the starting job, Townsend will have a chance to excel as a nickel back and could even play safety in the event of an injury. A young corner to watch this camp is William Gay. As a rookie, he played in every game and contributed on special teams.
Pro Bowler Troy Polamalu doesn't have to worry about losing his starting job at strong safety this camp, but he has plenty to prove to himself. Last season, injuries forced Polamalu to miss five games and affected his performance even when he was able to suit up. He had no interceptions or sacks in 2007 and underwent knee surgery in the offseason.
Free safety could get a little interesting. Ryan Clark is expected to be back as a starter after having his spleen removed at midseason. During his recovery he lost 30 pounds, but Clark recently said he was almost back to his playing weight. Pittsburgh's secondary coach says Clark hasn't done anything to lose his starting job, and backup Anthony Smith was an inadequate replacement in Clark's absence. Even still, it remains to be seen if Clark is at full strength. Rookie Ryan Mundy is worth watching. The sixth-round pick out of West Virginia could take the roster spot held by veteran backup Tyrone Carter.
Next week, as the Steelers first put on pads, we'll take a look at what to expect on the offensive side of the ball