Steelers’ defense getting old – only not this old

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense knew it was getting old. But

this old? Not yet.

Due to a computer error, the Steelers’ media guide bumps up a

number of players’ ages by four years each. James Farrior is listed

at 39, Aaron Smith at 38, James Harrison at 36, Larry Foote and

Ryan Clark at 34, Troy Polamalu at 33.

Losing fourth-quarter leads five times in the same season, as

the Steelers did last season while going 9-7 and missing the

playoffs, is enough to age any defense. Only not quite this

much.

Dick LeBeau, who turns 73 next month, is the NFL’s oldest

coordinator, so it’s probably good that database error didn’t find

its way to his biography. A scratch golfer who can shoot his age on

the right course, LeBeau doesn’t care much when his age his

mentioned. When someone calls his defense too old, however, it does

upset him.

Good thing he hasn’t glanced at page 332 of the Steelers’ press

guide, which lists the team roster and all those errant ages.

LeBeau remembers hearing the same they’re-too-old criticism two

years ago, when the Steelers’ defense – tackling one of the

toughest schedules for a Super Bowl winner – put together the NFL’s

best season statistically in 30 years, leading the league in nearly

every major category. Now he’s hearing it again, even though the

Steelers’ finished No. 5 defensively last year during an admittedly

disappointing season.

Getting old? To LeBeau, coaching players as enthusiastic and

productive as these Steelers can only make one feel young.

”I love what I do and I love the people that I do it with,”

said LeBeau, who will be cheered on by his players when he is

inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, on

Saturday. ”In order for me to coach, somebody has to want me to

coach, and that’s what I have right now.”

LeBeau considers himself fortunate that he’s still coaching six

of the 11 starters from the Steelers’ Super Bowl victory over

Seattle five years ago. To him, having veteran players who know his

system and are capable of performing in it well into their 30s is

an asset, not a liability.

”I don’t mind being old,” Smith said. ”Being old in this

business can be a good thing, I guess.”

While seven of the 11 starters 30 or older, and only Lawrence

Timmons and LaMarr Woodley are 25 or younger, Pittsburgh’s defense

has remained one of the NFL’s best despite playing most of last

season without the injured Polamalu and Smith. Polamalu is nearly

unrivaled at safety for his game-changing ability, while his

teammates call Smith the key to the Steelers’ run defense.

”With those two guys healthy now, that makes our defense 20-30

percent better than what we normally were last year,” Harrison

said. ”With Troy in there, especially, a quarterback really has to

account for him. With Aaron, it usually takes two people to hold

him off.”

The Steelers also brought back Bryant McFadden to play

cornerback after one season in Arizona and Larry Foote to compete

at inside linebacker following a dissatisfying season in Detroit,

where he signed so he could remain a starter.

”They certainly could be starters, but at the very least they

will give us depth and make the guys around them play better,”

Harrison said.

The Steelers need that defense to play at a 2008 level early in

the season, when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will be suspended

and fill-in Byron Leftwich will be running an offense that might be

not as productive as it likely will be when Roethlisberger

returns.

Of course, trying to prop up the offense is an age-old problem

for many defenses.

”Age is just a number,” Farrior said.