PITTSBURGH -- It is a misconception that the Steelers’ defensive lapses this season -- they have given up 11 plays of at least 50 yards -- are the surest sign that age has finally overrun a once fearsome defense.
Rarely, in fact, have so many rookies played so many snaps for the Steelers -- from Jarvis Jones, Vince Williams and Terence Garvin at linebacker to Shamarko Thomas at safety before he got hurt and ceded his job in the quarter package to Will Allen.
Injuries that have thrust inexperienced players into key roles this season – or hampered the development of emerging players such as Cortez Allen -- have led to a dropoff on defense as much as anything.
The Steelers have quietly gotten younger on defense over the last couple of years and next up in that ongoing process is the defensive backfield.
That will change soon enough as the Steelers have to get younger, particularly on the back end of their defense.
Free safety Ryan Clark is almost sure to play his last game in a Steelers uniform on Sunday. It has been a heck of a ride for the former undrafted free agent but age clearly caught up with him in his 12th NFL season.
Strong safety Troy Polamalu and cornerback Ike Taylor have also slowed down a little, and each is completing his 11th NFL season. Taylor hopes to return in 2014, and Polamalu said he intends to “honor his contract,” which runs through next season.
Each may have to take a pay cut to return in 2014, but I think the Steelers find a way to bring back both Polamalu and Taylor for one more season.
Polamalu is still playing at a pretty high level even if he is more effective closer to the line of scrimmage than in coverage. Taylor can provide a bridge to 2015 as the Steelers develop younger cornerbacks who are on their roster or will be after the 2014 draft.
The Steelers, as they have done with their defense, will retool the secondary gradually.
That means one more season for Polamalu and probably Taylor.