Do the Pittsburgh Steelers still have the best defense in the NFL?
That depends on three factors: the health of nose tackle Casey Hampton, the ability to replace inside linebacker James Farrior, and the emergence of a No. 2 cornerback. The most pressing issue is Hampton, who had ACL surgery in January. It's unknown whether the 35-year-old veteran will be lining up against Denver in the season opener, or starting the season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. His absence could force Ziggy Hood to shift from defensive end, or push rookie fourth-round pick Alameda Ta'amu into the starting lineup.
The Steelers already know they must replace Farrior, who was cut March 2. Some would dismiss this as a challenge, because Farrior was a part-time player last season and contributed a career-low 78 tackles. Still, he was a 10-year starter and the top leader on defense. Many expected the Steelers to draft Dont'a Hightower as his replacement, but they chose guard David DeCastro in the first round instead. Now, Pittsburgh will fill that spot with either Larry Foote, who was previously released so Lawrence Timmons could start, or Stevenson Sylvester, who has 21 career tackles.
The other question is at cornerback, where Pittsburgh must fill William Gay's starting spot. It's up in the air right now, and should come down to a three-player race between Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown. Lewis and Allen played on the team's nickel defense last season, but the dark horse to win this battle is Brown, a tenacious defender who led the Steelers in special teams tackles last season. The Steelers' defense ended last season ranked first in fewest yards and points allowed after being criticized early for being too old. So, it's hard to predict much of a falloff as Pittsburgh goes through some transition at a couple of positions.