By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — There was a great deal of talk heading into this season about how old the Pittsburgh Steelers were on defense, from their 72-year-old Hall-of-Fame coordinator Dick LeBeau to the line on back.
Actually, the Steelers should be known as the record-setting No. 1 defense against the run, second in scoring and fifth overall. It’s certainly not playing like it’s over the hill, but an infusion of some youth might have something to do with that. There also is a youth movement on the offensive side of the ball.
“Age is just a number,” inside linebacker James Farrior, the Steelers elder statesman with 14 NFL seasons, said, borrowing a line from LeBeau’s Hall-of-Fame speech. “But we’ve had a lot of young guys make contributions.”
Defensively, second-year pro Ziggy Hood has started the past six games since Aaron Smith was injured. Starting linebackers LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons are in their fourth NFL seasons, and so is cornerback William Gay. Two special teams aces are rookie linebackers Stevenson Sylvester and Jason Worilds, who could move into starting roles inside and outside, respectively, in the next couple years.
The Steelers are somewhat younger on the offensive side with rookie center Maurkice Pouncey anchoring the offensive line and second-year player Ramon Foster starting the past three games at right guard. Another second-year pro, Doug Legursky started four games there early in the season.
Rookie wideouts Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown aren’t just special teams stars, but they now are the third and fourth receivers. Starter Mike Wallace is in just his second season, along with tight end David Johnson, while running back Isaac Redman is considered a first-year player. And starting running back Rashard Mendenhall is in just his third NFL season.
“We’ve had some injured guys and some put on IR, but we’ve also had some young guys step up and play good football on the O-line,” Steelers left guard Chris Kemoeatu said. “Maurkice has been with us from the beginning, and he’s played really well so far this season.
“He replaced a veteran who won a Super Bowl with us, but he’s getting better and better with every game. Ramon, he’s played the past couple games as a starter, but he also put in some time as a backup. So, we’ve had some young guys make an impact this year on our O-line.”
Foster played in 14 games as an NFL rookie, including four starts for Kemoeatu, in 2009. He appears to have earned the right guard spot this year.
“I’ve been getting a little more comfortable every week, but that just comes with additional playing time,” Foster said. “So, hopefully, I’ll continue to make progress and be pretty good by the end of the season. These are an important group of games for us, so we can’t let the momentum slow down now.
“Sure, you have to be ready at any time, but it’s a lot tougher to go in on the O-line after sitting on the bench a while. Playing on the O-line depends so much on chemistry and cohesiveness, and that takes time to develop. I guess it’s more a mental thing than physical, but it was a good learning experience.”
Sanders has been involved in the offense for several weeks now, while Brown appears to have moved into the No. 4 spot. Both surpassed veteran Antwaan Randle El in the return game and passing attack. Sanders has 16 catches for 228 yards and two touchdowns, while Brown has five for 53.
“I’m really feeling a lot better out there with every series that I get, and I’m much more acclimated to life in the NFL,” Sanders said. “It wasn’t easy, by any means, and it would be more difficult if I wasn’t playing. But since I’m getting a lot of reps in practice and games, I think my play’s steadily coming along.
“I’m starting to develop a little rhythm. Coming from college, you’re around new guys and new teammates, and you’ve got a playbook that’s way more thicker than any in college. So, you really have to study it all the time. But with Antonio in there with me now, I don’t get yelled at all the time. He takes some of the heat off me. But, seriously, I think we’re progressing really well.
“And we’re both earning Ben’s trust,” Sanders added. “That wasn’t an easy thing to do, get him to trust that even if we mess up, he has the confidence to go back to us. I think we’ve established that now. He knows we can make some plays, and if we keep it up he’ll keep coming back to us. Chemistry doesn’t happen overnight, so the more reps we get the better off we’ll be.”
Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians believed that in just his second season, Johnson has become one of the more versatile tight ends in the NFL. And Johnson has been pleased with his development this year.
“It feels good to make plays for the team, blocking and everything,” Johnson said. “Heath and Matt have both gone down, so I have a lot to do to perform up to their standards. So, that’s all I’m trying to do.
“But I think I’ve done a pretty good job so far. You’d like to be able to have at least two tight ends, but we get Matt back this week. So, we should be all right. It was a big challenge against Baltimore, and it’s going to be another tough division game against the Bengals this week.”
Redman appears to be splitting time with Mewelde Moore as the team’s third-down back, and he explained the rotation.
“The whole game, they had me and Mewelde on the field on third down,” Redman said. “Then, our running backs coach (Kirby Wilson) pointed to the guy he wanted to go in there. Most of the game, third-and-seven and higher, I would go in. That was more for protection. So, near the end of the game, we figured they would blitz.
“But he didn’t know the call, which was made off Ben’s wrist band. They had me split out wide. If (Wilson) knew that was going to be the play, probably Mewelde would have been in there. But he looked at me and said I had to make a play. Just go out and make a play, and that’s what I did. (And) I had to score. I couldn’t be denied.
“Everything would have been riding on a fourth-down play,” Redman added. “So, I couldn’t let it get to that. I had to score. I had to make a big play to help this team win a big game. (But) to be able to come out in that atmosphere, in that type of game, and perform at a high level was a terrific feeling. I feel blessed to have been a part of it.”