PITTSBURGH -- This is the 13th in a series in which I will examine every position relative to the 2013 season – and look take a look ahead.
The good: Troy Polamalu played every snap after missing nine games the previous season because of a recurring calf injury, and the 11th-year veteran wreaked his usual havoc. Polamalu led the Steelers with five forced fumbles, tied for the team lead with two interceptions and also recorded a pair of sacks. Polamalu, who was fifth on the Steelers with 68 tackles and was voted to his eighth Pro Bowl, held up remarkably well considered he played a significant number of snaps at inside linebacker in the team’s quarter package. Clark also played every game and finished second in tackles (104) while intercepting two passes. Allen resuscitated his career after getting released by the Cowboys during the season, and he played regularly in the quarter package in the second half of the season while also contributing on special teams.
The bad: The Steelers were prone to giving up big plays and part of that can be attributed to a lack of overall speed on the back end of their defense. Polamalu is clearly better playing closer to the line of scrimmage than in deep coverage where opposing quarterbacks can take advantage of his propensity to gamble. Clark, while productive, also looked age had caught up with him in 2013. No young players emerged behind Polamalu and Clark, who played a combined -- and whopping -- 2,067 snaps last season. Rookie Shamarko Thomas showed promise and worked his way into the quarter package as a third safety. But the fourth-round draft pick did not play a defensive snap in the final five games after returning from a high-ankle sprain.
The money (2014 salary cap numbers): Polamalu’s cap hit in the final year of his contract is just under $11 million. He probably will have to take a pay cut but will almost certainly return in 2014 as team president Art Rooney II has said he wants Polamalu to retire as a Steeler. Clark’s $4.75 million cap hit in 2013 comes off the books, and he is unlikely to return.
Draft priority: Extremely high. The Steelers have to get younger in the secondary, and they could use the 15th overall pick in the draft on such as Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who could be Clark’s long-term successor at free safety. The Steelers figure to draft at least one safety, and they could sniff around for one in free agency. In 2006, the Steelers made an under-the-radar signing of Clark and that paid huge dividends for them.