Steelers' defense tries to rediscover finishing touch
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LATROBE, Pa. -- In 2009, nobody called the Steelers' defense the Steel Curtain.
Their No. 5 ranking in overall defense was misleading. They lost five games after leading in the fourth quarter. They gave up big plays, both defensively and on special teams.
"That's not us," cornerback Ike Taylor said, standing outside the cafeteria at St. Vincent College, where the Steelers hold camp. "As a group, we know we could've played better. Regardless of whether we win the Super Bowl or not, defense is supposed to be a constant around here."
Was it an off year or a warning sign? We are about to find out because the Steelers did not make major changes during the offseason, sticking with a veteran defensive unit that could feature seven starters at least 30.
"We do have some starters who are getting older, but we've got some young guys pushing them who we hope will be good players, like (defensive ends) Ziggy Hood and Sonny (Ra'Shon) Harris," Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert said. "We drafted two outside linebackers (this year), and (we have) two young, improving corners -- Keenan Lewis and Joe Burnett. Sure, you look at the average age of our starters and you might be concerned. But we do have young players pushing them who we expect to be able to contribute."
Although the Steelers are blessed with numerous defensive standouts like nose tackle Casey Hampton and linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, safety Troy Polamalu remains their defensive catalyst.
Few players in the NFL are more important to their team than Polamalu is to the Steelers. Polamalu missed most of last season with a knee injury, so seeing him back on the field during early training camp workouts has given his teammates and the front office a psychological boost.
"When you lose a great player like that, your depth is exposed," Colbert said. "We weren't good enough in certain situations. Hopefully, we don't have to go through that again."
While Polamalu's absence was glaring, the season-ending rotator cuff injury to defensive end Aaron Smith was also a major hit. The Steelers believe the return of Smith and Polamalu raises their defense back to championship level.
"People talk about our linebackers, but the defensive line is the center and strength of our defense," Polamalu said. "When we're at our best, all of us feed off each other."
If Polamalu is healthy this season, coordinator Dick LeBeau will have more leeway to draw up zone blitzes that can rattle and confuse opposing quarterbacks. LeBeau will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday, and the Steelers will close training camp to attend the ceremony in Canton, Ohio.
"He's the ultimate coach," Taylor said. "We all respect him."
Celebrating the induction with LeBeau is something the Steelers will cherish. But to reach the playoffs in 2010, the defense must prevent opponents from celebrating in the fourth quarter like they did last season.
"We didn't finish games how we usually do, and we take pride in getting the job done," Taylor said. "We've been the top defense before. I see no reason why we can't be again."
Clifton Brown covers the NFL for Sporting News. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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