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Steelers Defense Not Immune To Youth Movement

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I’ve written a lot this season about the decline of Pittsburgh Steelers all-time great Hines Ward. It was never my intent to turn this into a Hines Hater blog but the combination of his being one of the faces of the current era of Black and Gold greatness and the fact the national media was totally out of the loop in regards to his rapidly diminishing importance, I felt like I had to keep harping on it. Also, despite Hines’ insistence that the feels he’s “owed nothing” by the team, I have a feeling the eventual break-up is going to be a painful one. And Steeler Nation should be prepared for an ugly fall-out.

While I’ve been focusing on Hines, however, I’ve neglected the other side of the ball.

A couple things happened during Sunday’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs which really hit home to me that Hines may not be the only Steeler mainstay facing his last stand. First, the Chiefs offense had a fleeting moment of competence in the second quarter when Tyler Palko stared down a blitzing linebacker and converted a big third down. “Stared down” is a bit of an overstatement as James Farrior was sent up the middle on a fire blitz and while nothing but the faint scent of failure stood between him and Palko, the ball was delivered before James had crossed the line of scrimmage. Then, late in the game, with the Chiefs moving the ball on an exhausted Steeler defense, the cameras repeatedly cut to a shot of Casey Hampton sucking wind on the sideline.

Not that the jabbering imbeciles in the NBC booth could be distracted from their constant stream of mindless chatter to acknowledge what we were seeing.

Farrior had seemingly sipped from the Fountain of Youth last season after a miserable 2009 campaign. Well, the effects have worn off as this year he’s reverted back to being slow and old. It’s no coincidence the Steelers run defense, which had been gashed early in the year, improved dramatically when injuries to Farrior and James Harrison necessitated the Steelers starting Larry Foote and Stevenson Sylvester on the inside. Foote tweaked a hammy early on Sunday which probably led to Farrior playing more than they wanted but at 36 years old and with younger and better (not to mention cheaper) options available, I have to wonder how much longer the Steelers are going to stick with their captain.

Hampton, whose idea of bicep curls has always been an Iron City in each hand, was never what you’d call an ideal physical specimen. Over the past couple seasons, he’s increasingly become a two down player, coming out in obvious passing downs. Now, he’s even being rotated in the base defense with fast rising youngster Steve McClendon. McClendon, 25, is a second year player who has been a mainstay on the Steelers practice squad. With Big Snack almost a decade older and in his eleventh NFL season, one has to wonder how much longer it’ll be before McClendon goes from supplanting long-time back up Chris Hoke to replacing the aging All-Pro.

And then we have Troy Polamalu. I honestly hadn’t even contemplated a future without Troy but this article posted on ESPN really hit home the fact that day may be coming a lot sooner than any of us would like to admit. According to unsubstantiated claims, Troy suffered at least three concussions in college and perhaps another two in high school. Perhaps if one of those coaches ever bothered to teach him how to form tackle instead of launching himself head-first at players like a missile, this problem would have been averted. But that horse has long since left the barn.

Let’s be conservative and say Troy suffered perhaps four concussions prior to joining the Steelers. As Pittsburghers learned during the great Sidney Crosby Concussion Crisis, mental impairment and significant quality of life issues can begin occurring after as few as three. Also, playing too soon after one concussion makes a person even more prone to sustaining them in the future. The fact Troy suffered “concussion-related symptoms” twice in less than two months is quite worrisome.

Merril Hoge, in his fantastic book Find A Way, went into shocking detail about how playing through repeated concussions ended his career and nearly his life. If you learn one thing from Hoge’s story, it’s that brain injuries are totally unpredictable and when the end comes, it comes about rather swiftly. This isn’t like Hines or Farrior where Father Time slowly saps a great player of their skills or even similar to what happened with Fast Willie Parker, who broke his leg while leading the AFC in rushing, was a shadow of his former self the next season, and was out of football one year later. When Troy decides playing with his kids and being able to form coherent sentences is more important than terrorizing quarterbacks, it’s going to come quickly and unexpectedly.

And, unlike Farrior and Snack, there is nobody on the planet capable of replacing him.