Commentary

Steelers' D getting better with age

Originally Published: February 1, 2011
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

With a chance to win their third Super Bowl in six years, the Pittsburgh Steelers may have a defense for the ages, but age is also an issue.

The Steelers' starting defense averages 29.55 years, second oldest in the NFL this season and the fifth oldest of any team to play in a Super Bowl. Age may be just a number, but in the young man's game of football, age can be the albatross that holds down a team from winning the Super Bowl.

This Steelers team, though, believes that age is an advantage.

"We're like fine wine," said nose tackle Casey Hampton, 33. "We get better with age. I think the main thing when you are older is that you know how to play. We have a nice sprinkle of young guys, but we have a lot of older players who know how to play the game."

[+] EnlargeHampton
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireCasey Hampton, 33, says the Steelers' experience gives them an advantage.

Technically, the Steelers' defense is older than the first "Over The Hill Gang" defense George Allen put together with the Washington Redskins in 1971. With a year of experience together, Allen's "Gang" made it to the Super Bowl the next season with an average starting age of 30.17 years and lost to the Miami Dolphins, 14-7.

In fact, three of the four oldest defenses to make the Super Bowl lost, including the 1976 Minnesota Vikings (30.64) and the 1973 Vikings (29.64). Like the Steelers, both teams had six 30-year-old starters. The only Super Bowl defense older than the Steelers' to win was the 1971 Dallas Cowboys (29.82). That Cowboys team had eight 30-year-old starters.

But the Steelers believe they have found the fountain of youth. They believe it's their defensive coordinator, Dick LeBeau.

"We have a coach [LeBeau] who is 73 years old and he acts like he's 43," said defensive end Brett Keisel, 32. "We all have the feel of his personality around the facility. We don't look at it like we are an old team. We look at it like we're a veteran team that has a lot of expectations."

It's interesting to see LeBeau and Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers in this Super Bowl. Both were on Bill Cowher's staff in 1992 when they changed the Steelers into a 3-4 defense. LeBeau remembers how he spent the entire offseason in the office until 11 on most nights, designing the way they wanted to construct their 3-4.

"I did the drawing and Bill and Dom did most of the X's and O's," LeBeau said.

They came up with a 900-play defensive playbook that had to be pared down so players wouldn't be too lost that first year. The advantage of that base year in 1992 is that the Steelers have been drafting and signing players to fit this scheme for almost two decades. Capers is in his second year of changing the Packers into a 3-4.

. Plus, a 3-4 defense can use a few more older players and be successful. A defensive tackle in a 4-3 scheme usually starts to fade when he reaches age 32, while a nose tackle in the 3-4 can play into his mid to late 30s. Because ends in a 3-4 are asked to hold up blockers and let the linebackers make plays, 3-4 teams can use older linebackers.

"The video doesn't lie," LeBeau said. "Chronological age and physiological age are two different things. These guys are physiologically young and they can play at an NFL level. I know nobody lasts forever, but when I looked at the video from last year, I felt they had a lot of good football left in them. I think this year's numbers reflect that."

Despite its age, this was one of the Steelers' best defenses. It didn't reach the level of the Steel Curtain defenses of the 1970s, but it achieved some amazing results. It ranked first in the NFL in eight categories, including sacks (48), fewest points allowed (232), touchdowns allowed (22) and yards allowed per play (4.5), just to name a few.

The Steelers' 62.8 rushing yards allowed per game was the third best since the NFL merger in 1970. These old legs have the speed to sack the quarterback and make big plays and the strength and discipline to stop the run.

"Everybody talks about the 30-year-olds, but the philosophy here is if you don't know what you're doing, you don't get on the field," linebackers coach Keith Butler said. "I'm not comfortable playing young guys until they know what they are doing. The older guys have been groomed in this system for a long time."

Two of the young stars on the defense are outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley and inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons. Neither started as a rookie. Butler gradually moved them into the starting lineup, and now they are stars.

Woodley, 26, and James Harrison, 32, form one of the league's most dangerous pass-rushing duos, combining for 20.5 sacks. Timmons works with 36-year-old James Farrior on the inside in a scheme in which the defensive line funnels ball carriers to the inside.

"Our job up front is to hold up the blockers," Hampton said. "Timmons usually comes up to me before games and says, 'Keep me clean.'"

Age means discipline, and Steelers defenders usually aren't caught out of their gaps or making mental mistakes.

"Being together so long, you don't see us making a whole lot of mistakes," Farrior said. "We've been able to form a relationship together. We're all a cohesive group."

Cohesive and feeling younger than their ages.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer