While defenses have come and gone like Oakland Raiders head coaches, the Steelers have marked excellence on a seasonal basis for nearly a decade. Over the last five years, the Pittsburgh Steelers have transformed their defense from good to great. While they have never sustained a shut down moniker against the pass, they are arguably the greatest rushing defense in NFL history.
How do they do it? How do the Steelers remain consistently excellent throughout the decade while defenses like the Bears, Eagles, Chargers, Titans, Vikings and Giants come and go?
As far as defensive coordinators go, Dick LeBeau may be THE greatest d-coordinator in the history of football. Inventor of the vaunted "Zone Blitz" while an assistant coach, LeBeau implemented a scheme to stop West Coast and Run and Shoot offenses that dominated the 80's and early 90's. After struggling to win as a head coach for the Bills and Bengals, LeBeau came back to the Steelers in 2004 where he would hoist his first of two Lombardies the following season. He was originally in Pittsburgh during the early-mid 90s when the Steelers had one of the greatest linebacking cores in NFL history with Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Levon Kirkland and Chad Brown.
Since LeBeau's hire, the Steelers have yet to finish with a losing season while finishing in the top 10 in total defense including five straight years in the top 5. This stability stems more from the scheme of the defense rather than the players themselves. While the Steelers do have elite defensive players, the replacing of linebackers, linemen and cornerbacks shows that the system does an excellent job of placing a young player into a role rather than relying solely on his physical talent.
Just how good is "Big Snack"? The team selected him along with Joe Greene and Ernie Stautner to represent the defensive tackles on the 75th Anniversary All-Time Team. Selected out of the University of Texas in the first round of the 2001 NFL draft, Hampton has been the centerpiece behind, arguably, one of the greatest run defenses in the history of football. In a 3-4 scheme, the nose tackle's job is to occupy two offensive linemen, leaving the linebackers to make a tackle on the ball carrier. Hampton not only occupies linemen, he pushes them right off the ball and makes the tackle 2-3 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Simply put, if Hampton is not being blocked by more than one guy, you can almost guarantee the play will get blown up.
There is no one in the game as dynamic as Troy Polamalu. He epitomizes confusion in LeBeau's Zone Blitz scheme. While linebackers may come and go in Pittsburgh's defense, Polamalu is irreplaceable. Due to his explosive speed, athleticism and instinct, you can guarantee in any given game, he will show blitz and drop back into coverage, show coverage and blitz, and everything in between. He is such an important piece to the defense, as evident in the Steelers' 5-7 record without him the last two seasons. Drafted in 2003, Polamalu is a six time Pro Bowl selection, four time All Pro, NFL 2000s All Decade Team, and the 2010 AP Defensive Player of the year. He could go down as the greatest safety in franchise history.
Most linebackers in their mid 30's tend to slow down considerably to the point that they are replaced. Not James Farrior. At age 35, Farrior registered 109 tackles and 6 sacks (only half a sack behind his career high). After playing five years in New York as a Jets outside linebacker, Farrior signed with the Steelers in 2002 and was moved to right inside linebacker. In nine seasons with Pittsburgh, "Potsie" has accumulated 685 tackles, 28 sacks and 8 interceptions. Also, he is extremely smart as evident by being elected the captain of the defense for seven consecutive years. In fact, only a lack of interest would prevent James Farrior from becoming a future NFL coach someday as he has been under the tutelage of Dick LeBeau for nearly a decade. Another underrated quality is Farrior's health. In his nine years with the Steelers, Farrior has only missed four total games.
In terms of technique, strength, agility and instict, James Harrison is unmatched by any linebacker in the league. Harrison had big shoes to fill in 2007 when he was named the starting outside linebacker to replace fan favorite Joey Porter. He would go on to register 8.5 sacks, 7 forced fumbles en route to his first Pro Bowl. In 63 career games, Harrison has registered 45 sacks and has been a nightmare for left tackles and quarterbacks throughout the league. His pass rush, alone, allows LeBeau to drop more linebackers into coverage further confusing the offense. However, he is also dangerous in coverage as we saw in Super Bowl XLIII against the Cardinals. Although 33 years old and dealing with back problems, Harrison is a bit of a late bloomer as he had difficulty learning plays/concepts early in his career. The health issues may linger but if he's anywhere close to 100%, you can guarantee another stellar year from James Harrison.
The aforementioned people have epitomized the Steelers' defense for the last 5-10 years. Although Lawrence Timmons and Lamar Woodley are blossoming into future stars, if they aren't already, the listed personnel are the heart and soul of the defense. As they get older, eventually there will be retirements and the franchise will have to continue to replenish the team with excellent players. Until then, let's sit back and enjoy a defense that replicates the city they play for and a league that is rapidly dissuading the physicality of the sport.