The Steelers' defense, including the secondary, has been described as old and slow.
But that description is untrue when it comes to the back half of the Steelers' defense.
Sure, they might be old: Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark and Ike Taylor are all at least 32. And yes, they are definitely a step or two slower compared to when they were in their prime.
However, the unit that allowed the fewest passing yards in the NFL for the second consecutive season has one important variable: experience.
The Steelers' starting secondary has a NFL-high 37 years of experience, and is second to Houston's new-look secondary, which now includes Ed Reed, in career starts.
This will be the eighth consecutive season Taylor, Clark and Polamalu have played together — the most consecutive seasons of any trio in the league — and with the potential of Cortez Allen, the Steelers' defensive backfield could rival some of the best of the past decade.
“This is one of the most athletic secondaries that I ever played with,” Taylor said. “It goes (Super Bowl winning years of) 2008, 2005 and to be determined with this one. But let me tell you: This one has the potential, and I don't care how old we are. We were No. 1 last year, but we can be even better this year.”
Steelers secondary coach Carnell Lake is thrilled to have seasoned vets like Polamalu, Taylor, Clark and newly acquired William Gay to mix with Allen and rookie Shamarko Thomas. But he is more impressed with what Taylor thinks of the potential of the unit.
“I like that Ike sees it that way,” Lake said. “I am excited about where we are, and especially with having three very seasoned football players like we do.”
Polamalu said, despite its age, that their secondary has the potential to be the best every year just because of their knowledge of the scheme. Polamalu, Clark and Taylor have started 325 games using Dick LeBeau's zone blitz.
“We have always had the talent, but what it comes down to, in the heat of the action, is how we execute,” Polamalu said. “We have such great knowledge and experience within this defense, but it all comes down to execution.”
The Steelers were fairly dominant against the pass a season ago. They allowed a NFL-low 185.2 yards per game through the air and allowed one 300-yard passing game.
Sure, interceptions were down (only six by the secondary) and splash plays were few and far between, but that didn't stop them from making them the hardest team to throw on.
The Steelers ranked first against the pass for the final nine games despite occasionally using a patchwork secondary that included Josh Victorian and Robert Golden. Along with the inexperience of first-year starter Keenan Lewis and Allen, a second-year player, Lake had no choice but to pull back the reins.
But Allen has another year of experience, the addition of Gay after he played one season in Arizona, and the aforementioned core trio will allow LeBeau to use the secondary to pressure the quarterback more and create impact plays to win games like they did during their Super Bowl-winning years.
“Some of the things that we did with Deshea (Townsend) and William Gay over the years, we weren't able to do last year,” Clark said. “Coach Lake took it slow, but now getting William back and having another year with Cortez is going to allow us to do the things that were successful in years before.”
Now, if they only can stay healthy.
Polamalu missed 9½ games with a calf injury. Taylor was lost for all but two snaps of the final five games with a broken foot.
“Clearly, we are a better group when Troy is playing,” Clark said. “We are better, clearly, if Ike is playing. Some of those things you can control with training, and some you can't. We have to stay healthy.”
Taylor played in 135 consecutive games before his injury; Gay has played in 96 straight games, and Clark hasn't missed a game because of injury in 62 games.
What it boils down to is Polamalu staying healthy.
“If we can stay healthy is the key,” Lake said. “If we can keep some of our veteran guys healthy, I think we will be great.”
But can they rival that of the great secondaries in Steelers history?
“We feel like the sky is the limit,” Gay said. “We want to be the best secondary in the league. That's our goal. Period. No matter what circumstances we are under, we demand to be the best secondary.”
Mark Kaboly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email]firstname.lastname@example.org[/email] or via Twitter @MarkKaboly_Trib.