Harris: Steelers abandon youth movement

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

I understand that Kimo von Oelhoffen can be had cheap.

When I spoke with Dermontti Dawson two months ago, he claimed to be in great shape.

Franco Harris doesn't look a day older than 50.

Jerome Bettis has a few miles left on his odometer.

Joey Porter is still available.

With Casey Hampton (32), Ryan Clark (30) and Antwaan Randle El (30) signed and 29-year-year old Larry Foote returning to the fold Monday, can veteran free agents Deshea Townsend and Willie Parker be far behind?

Given the Steelers' sudden and surprising free-agent splurge, every day is Veterans Day on the South Side.

The Steelers are going retro, bringing back some of their golden oldies in an attempt to restore order in the locker room and calm on the field.

George Allen's Over-the-Hill-Gang has nothing on Mike Tomlin's 30-and-Over-Crew.

Six of Tomlin's defensive starters will be 30 or older this season, including five members of his front seven.

"We don't need to change much," Clark said last week after signing a four-year contract to remain with the Steelers. "We need to stay steady."

Steady means solid and dependable veteran players who understand Dick LeBeau's 3-4 defense and can pass along knowledge to younger teammates.

It means playing it safe and not taking chances on the field.

Being in the right place at the right time.

It also means keeping the locker room panic-free following a big loss or two or three.

In 2009, the Steelers salvaged a 9-7 record because of the poise displayed by their veterans late in the season.

Lastly, it means Tomlin's youth movement, at least for now, has come to a screeching halt.

With the exception of 27-year-old safety Will Allen, a bit player under Tomlin when he was defensive backs coach in Tampa Bay, none of this year's key free-agent acquisitions were personally selected by Tomlin.

Hampton, Clark, Randle El and Foote are from the Bill Cowher regime.

Sure, Hampton, Clark and Foote played under Tomlin, but they're Cowher's players.

It isn't very often when a coach brings back players who also played for the coach he replaced. But Tomlin has signed four players who fit that description.

Or is it director of football operations Kevin Colbert, who originally drafted or signed all four of those players, who's really pulling the strings?

Foote's return casts a shadow over Lawrence Timmons, Tomlin's initial first-round draft pick in 2007.

Is Foote being brought in as a backup to provide depth at inside linebacker? Is he insurance in case Timmons doesn't hold up physically? Or a carrot to dangle in front of Timmons to keep him motivated?

Timmons' transition from outside linebacker to inside linebacker has not been smooth.

At Florida State, Timmons made the splash plays that Tomlin wants his defenders to produce as an edge pass rusher from the outside. He used his speed and quickness to blow up college quarterbacks and running backs.

With James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley (drafted in the second round the same year as Timmons) starting at outside linebacker, Timmons was forced inside, replacing Foote last season.

Asked to gain weight to help shed blockers, Timmons displayed flashes of his prodigious talent in 2009 but he seemed better suited on the outside.

Timmons was the No. 15 overall pick, 10 selections ahead of Jon Beason, a natural inside linebacker who has two Pro Bowls and an All-Pro selection on his resume in three seasons with the Carolina Panthers.

Perhaps, as Colbert likes telling reporters about mistakes that teams make in the draft, the problem is not with Timmons but the decision-makers who projected he could play inside when he's better suited outside.

Give Timmons time. He's only 23.

With Foote returning to the roster, the Steelers can afford to give Timmons all the time he needs.