In part one of my season ending column, we took a look at the offensive side of the ball and all the potential issues facing the unit this off-season. Largely, free agency is the enemy on offense. Now it's time to take a look at the other side of the pigskin, and I think we'll find age and depth are the primary concerns.
First, a quick rundown of the thirty-somethings. All the following players will be 30 or older by the start of the 2013 season.
Clark, Foote, Hampton, Harrison, Keisel, Taylor and Polamalu
Taylor's age makes resigning Keenan Lewis the number one priority this off-season, at least through my eyes. At the end of the day, Taylor is yet another aging veteran living on borrowed time. He'll be thirty-three at the start of the season, and I sure can't remember many shut down corners in their mid-thirties. He's still gonna be a heck of a player, but over the next year or two, Lewis will supplant him as the best corner we've got, if he hasn't already.
Foote and Hampton are free agents, and it's hard to imagine both re-signing. Given the status of the current roster, it seems Foote is more likely to return than Casey Hampton. Sean Spence will be coming back after losing his rookie year in the preseason, but it's hard to imagine a second year guy taking over a starting job in the middle of Dick Lebeau's defense. McClendon, on the other hand, may finally get the shot to start at the nose if Hampton retires and/or isn't offered a contract. He had a really nice preseason last year, then struggled to get playing time when the season started. That should change this year.
We're looking woefully old at the safety position. Ryan Mundy is a free agent – one I'd be happy to see walk – and so is Will Allen, who was the top backup at both positions last year. Allen was good depth, but he's another thirty-something, and they need to be getting younger back there. Perhaps there is a future with Golden or Cromartie-Smith, only time will tell. But regardless, it's time to consider draft a safety on day one.
Harrison was starting to play better ball late in the season, but at his age he must be considered a liability moving forward. He will never be the dominant player he once was, and it sure appears that Father Time has really begun to grab hold of him. Let's be honest, the guy will be 35 in May, his days are numbered. With Woodley playing the role of perennial underachiever on the other side, the situation at OLB is looking more than just a little iffy.
Keisel had a pretty nice season, but he's another guy getting long in the tooth. The battle for the starting job opposite him should be an open competition heading into camp, as it would be hard to say Hood had done enough last year to be the clear starter. Quite frankly, we've seen little more than mediocrity from him, and we haven't seen enough of Heyward to give him a fair grade. The competition between these two in August should be pretty intense and exciting. Ultimately, the loser will probably be Keisel's eventual replacement. There are no doubt big plans for both these young lineman, but it's time for them to start making some big strides.
In the end, there will be plenty to watch at every position. Offensively, it's largely free agency causing problems, but on defense it's age, lack of development, and lack of depth in certain areas. Every year the talking heads on ESPN predict the Steelers defense will fall apart because of their age, and this may well be the year unless they can put together a truly dynamite off-season... specifically through the draft.
It's going to take two off-seasons minimum to get this defense back where it needs to be, and that's assuming everything goes right along the way. What is amazing though, is how Lebeau manages to field a winning defense year after year after year, and there's no reason to think he'll field anything to the contrary this season.