By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — Just going on memory, as opposed to scanning the final statistics, it would be difficult to believe that the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense finished among the elite teams in the National Football League.
Surely, as badly as they played during a late-season five-game losing streak, which included defeats to NFL bottom-feeders Kansas City, Oakland and Cleveland, the Steelers had to have their worst defensive ranking.
After checking the final stats, however, one might be surprised to know that the Steelers were rated fifth in the NFL and fourth in the AFC in both total defense and yards allowed. The Steelers led the AFC in rushing defense and total sacks and were third and second in those categories, respectively, in the league.
Sure, there were shortcomings for the defensive unit, especially in the secondary, and the final stats proved it with low rankings in scoring defense (12th), touchdowns allowed (14th), total tackles (28th) and interceptions (25th) among the 32 teams in the league. But that appears to have made the Steelers defense even hungrier as training camp began Friday with player arrival and the annual conditioning test.
“Obviously, we’d like to finish No. 1, but we finished No. 5 overall, which is pretty good,” Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel said. “But we’d like to be better than we were. We’re going to have some key guys back, Troy (Polamalu) and Aaron (Smith), and they hopefully can get us where we want to be.
“Those two guys are among the greats in the league. So, anytime you can get those guys back on the field with you it definitely makes you stronger. So, to have both of those guys back, I guarantee, that will make a big difference for (the defense) this season.”
Polamalu injured a knee in the season-opener and missed the next four games. He played four games, but suffered another knee injury and was inactive the final seven regular-season games. Smith injured a shoulder in the fifth game and missed the final 11. Both are at full strength for camp.
The Steelers also get two former starters back in the fold after they left recently for free agency. Larry Foote will compete at inside linebacker, while Bryant McFadden is expected to win a starting cornerback spot opposite Ike Taylor. And defensive captain James Farrior is thrilled to have them back.
“It’s great to have that loud-mouth back in our locker room again,” Farrior said. “We missed him last year, just not having his voice around, but it was especially tough for me. He was one of my best friends when he was here. So, hopefully, we can get back that good relationship that we had.
“It’s great to have Bryant back, too, because he was one of my good friends. Just having those guys back and the camaraderie that we shared in the previous years, it’s going to be great to have them back. Aaron Smith, he’s my locker mate, so having him and Troy back will be great for our defense.”
Another key cog in the Steelers defense for much of the past decade has been massive nose tackle Casey Hampton. After coming to camp in poor physical condition last year, Hampton appeared to be in much better shape this summer. He was ruled exempt from the run test by Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, but was happy to comment on the club’s defense going into this season.
“We’re used to being one of the best defenses in the league, and I think we can get back to that level now that we have B-Mac and Foote back,” Hampton said. “And having Troy and Aaron healthy now, that’s going to be a big boost going into this season.
“So, we’re definitely looking forward to it. Anytime you go through what we went through last year and not make the playoffs, you can’t wait to get back out there to turn things around and get back to playing the way we play around here. That’s tough, hard-nosed Steelers defense.”
Farrior took those thoughts a step further.
“We didn’t win the championship, and that’s the bottom line,” Farrior said. “It’s also all that counts around here. So, definitely, we felt like we could have played a lot better last year. And we all want to pick it up a lot this year. Everybody’s ready to go, and everybody’s healthy. So, we’re looking forward to it.
“(But) I always feel like I have to compete in camp. Ever since I’ve been in the NFL, that’s been my mindset. There’s always somebody out there who’s younger trying to take my job, and they’re always looking to replace you. So, every year should be a proving year, and that’s how it is with me.”
And as the Steelers defense gets its swagger back, the club should return to being an elite team in the NFL once again.