For the Steelers, 1983 marked the last season for the remaining players of the legendary "Steel Curtain" defense that dominated the 70's. Jack Lambert and Mel Blount were on their way to Canton as their careers came to an end. While Lambert was only 31 years old, his constant battle with turf toe ultimately led to a premature retirement in what was a brilliant career. Blount, at age 35, was simply too old to play at the same speed and physicality that defined his career for over a decade.
For the current Steelers, Hines Ward, James Farrior and Aaron Smith all fit the same description.
Ward, age 35, has just 26 catches for 258 yards and 2 touchdowns in 8 games this season. The underdog of the NFL has made a hall of fame career out of his toughness. Not only has Ward made great catches over the middle while taking multiple hits, he has laid out several defensive backs and linebackers on running plays. Now, however, those characteristics seem to be nothing more than a memory. We haven't seen any of Ward's signature blocking and he certainly has been more prone to injuries on hits over the middle. Is this the last season for Hines Ward? That's up to him, but the numbers don't lie and the Steelers have already found three young, lightning fast receivers who are way ahead of the curve. Ward's contract expires at the end of the 2013 season and the 13-year veteran still believes he can play. The numbers, and cameras, suggest his time is coming to an end in this offense.
In a franchise rich with elite level defensive linemen, Aaron Smith was one of the greatest linemen in Steelers' history. He was also one of the most underrated defensive player in the NFL for the last ten years. Smith anchored the left side of Pittsburgh's stingy 3-4 defense since he was given the starting position in 2000. A fourth round pick out of Northern Colorado in the '99 draft, Smith's numbers suggest above average play. However, he constantly occupied two offensive linemen on running plays which allowed the linebackers behind him to make plays. What resulted was one of the most dominant, consistent rush defense in NFL history.
Unfortunately, Smith has been plagued by injuries over the last three seasons, including 2011. Since 2008, Smith has played in only 15 games due to injuries to his biceps, triceps and foot. When he started this season, the rushing defense struggled mightily and it was clear Smith was no longer the dominant force he once was. It would be very surprising if we saw Smith in a Steelers uniform next season.
A free agent signing in 2002, James Farrior has been the captain of the most dominant defense over the last decade. In 223 career games, Farrior has racked up 971 tackles, 11 ints and 35.5 sacks. The University of Virginia product actually played against Mike Tomlin when the head coach was a player at William and Mary. Farrior, 36, has been slow this year. To his credit, he looked slow two years ago only to have a great season last year. This season, Farrior, again, looks slow and his pulled calf may be a sign of breaking down. While the Steelers are still waiting for Stevenson Sylvester to learn the system, Farrior will be a free agent by the end of next season which gives Pittsburgh a small window to fill his position. While the Steelers need help with their offensive line, cornerbacks, and nose tackle, they would not pass up a top-tier inside linebacker in the first round of the draft if one was available.
The difference between these Steelers and the team in 1983 is their youth on offense. Their quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, is the second oldest player on the offense at age 29. Their youth allows GM Kevin Colbert to shift his focus on restocking the defense. Troy Polamalu, Brett Keisel, James Harrison, Casey Hampton and Ryan Clark are all over 30. While they still have a few years left in the tank, the replacement plan is already underway.