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Tuesday, May 4, 2010
Return of the Steel Curtain?

By James Walker

Polamalu/Smith/McFadden
With the return of a healthy Troy Polamalu and Aaron Smith, along with Bryant McFadden rejoining the team, the Steelers are hoping to field an elite defense again in 2010.
PITTSBURGH -- A look around the Steelers' locker room during their veteran minicamp last weekend brought back a nostalgic feel.

Dynamic safety Troy Polamalu, who was sidelined for 11 games in 2009, was in one corner after returning to practice.

Not too far from Polamalu was cornerback Bryant McFadden, who was laughing and catching up with teammates after spending a year with the Arizona Cardinals.

Defensive end Aaron Smith -- showing no ill effects from a season-ending shoulder injury -- was at the opposite end of the locker room tutoring second-year player Ziggy Hood. And veteran linebacker Larry Foote gave interviews at his locker saying how happy he was to return to Pittsburgh after spending last season with the Detroit Lions.

These were all welcome sights for the Steelers' defense that you didn't see last season.

Injuries, defections and blown fourth-quarter leads took the shine off Pittsburgh's proud and talented unit in 2009. Despite a No. 5 overall ranking, the Steelers' defense just didn't look the same last year as Pittsburgh missed the playoffs for the first time in coach Mike Tomlin's tenure.

And with franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger serving a conditional six-game suspension this season, the latest version of the "Steel Curtain" will need to be super again.

Before dropping several notches last year, Pittsburgh's defense led the NFL in total yards and points allowed in 2008 on its way to the team's sixth Super Bowl title.

"There's no question that we have the ingredients and the talent to do that," Polamalu said of Pittsburgh's defense getting back on top. "It is whether or not we can maintain the focus that can last throughout the year and stay healthy."

Health hit Pittsburgh's defense in key areas last season.

Polamalu suffered a left-knee injury in the opening game against the Tennessee Titans and never quite recovered. He played in four more games but re-injured the knee. The Steelers' defense missed the big-play element that Polamalu brings, particularly in the fourth quarter to close out games.

Smith, who has been Pittsburgh's most consistent defensive end for the past decade, missed 11 games after shoulder surgery. Defensive starters Lawrence Timmons (ankle) and Brett Keisel (neck stinger) also missed three combined games for the Steelers.

Because Polamalu is the team's best defender, his injury is most often cited as the reason for Pittsburgh's struggles. But players believe it was a collection of occurrences.

"We just had a lot of injuries," Pro Bowl linebacker LaMarr Woodley said. "With everyone on the field, everybody is part of the defense. So we can't just look at [Polamalu] and say without one man out there our defense breaks down."

Everyone in Pittsburgh is healthy again and hoping for better luck in that department.

In addition to getting healthy, the Steelers added depth by bringing back veterans McFadden and Foote. Both were starters for the Steelers during their last title run two years ago.

"It's the same old Dick LeBeau defense, and I feel comfortable," Foote said. "It's like I never left."

While Foote's role is a work in progress, it appears McFadden has the inside track to start at cornerback opposite Ike Taylor. McFadden practiced with the first-team defense during veteran minicamp.

The Steelers believed William Gay was ready to step up last year as the starting cornerback, so the team let McFadden go and he got a more lucrative offer from Arizona. After Gay struggled for one season, the Steelers reacquired McFadden in a draft-day trade and gave him a contract extension that runs through 2012.

"Things worked out that I got an opportunity to come back here," said a happy McFadden. "It's good knowing that you have the opportunity to be in a successful defense and making plays. It feels very good to be a part of that and also to have the surrounding guys here."

Even before Roethlisberger's suspension, the team wanted to get back to the dominant, smashmouth style that made the Steelers successful. So expect a lot of running and trying to win with field position early in the season.

Luckily for the Steelers, they won't face any opponents during Roethlisberger's suspension that were ranked in the top 10 offensively last year. The Titans, who will meet Pittsburgh in Week 2, had the highest-rated offense of the first six opponents at No. 12.

Pittsburgh's quarterback situation remains undecided. Byron Leftwich received the first-team reps with the Steelers in minicamp. But Tomlin said earlier this week that backups Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch also will get opportunities to show what they can do this offseason.

Regardless, none of those quarterbacks is capable of throwing for 350 yards every week. So if the Steelers are going to stay afloat and win games early, it will be because their defense rounded back into championship form.

"Being a part of the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense, you always feel accountable to be successful week in and week out," McFadden said. "We know we’re going to be called upon to play good football like we’re accustomed to doing. Everything else will work itself out."