James Harrison, one of the many 30-somethings on the Steelers defense, was musing Sunday about the numerous critics who piled on after the defense was largely responsible for three losses in the first five games by blowing fourth-quarter leads.
"Every year we've been getting old, for what, five or six years now? What have we been? At least top five [in the NFL] for the last 10 years? We've been getting old for so long that, at some point, they're eventually going to be right. If they say it long enough, eventually it's going to happen."
"This is not that point."
Maybe Harrison is on to something. Maybe it's not quite time to say that two of the more scrutinized defensive players are done. Linebacker Larry Foote and defensive end Brett Keisel made quite a resurgence Sunday. They were active and productive in the 27-12 win against the Washington Redskins and against the Cincinnati Bengals the week before when the defense made three fourth-quarter stops to save a 24-17 win.
"You hear it," Foote said of the squawking about the failures of the defense. "Your family and friends try to tip-toe around it and tell you, 'You did this right and you did that right.' But the truth is, we were giving it up. We saw it. It was right there in front of our face."
Keisel saw the same thing.
"I expect to be there for my teammates. I want to be in the right spot for them all the time. But, occasionally, I'm not. I hate that. But it's what you do with what's left [of the season] that's important. Do you sit back and feel sorry for yourself? Or do you buckle down and work harder and start making plays?"
Keisel went with the latter option. He made a huge play late against the Redskins, tackling Logan Paulsen for a 7-yard loss after the tight end caught a pass behind the line of scrimmage. Keisel was credited with four tackles, a quarterback hurry and one pass defense.
Foote also had a big day against a potent Redskins offense led by quarterback Robert Griffin III. He had the Steelers' only sack -- throwing Griffin for an 8-yard loss early in the fourth quarter -- and was credited with a quarterback hurry. He had six tackles, including two for losses.
Keisel and Foote took the defense's problems in the first five games personally. Keisel, the defensive captain, blamed himself for the loss to the Oakland Raiders because of three bad plays. Foote, the on-the-field leader who sets the defense by making the play calls, took blame for all three losses.
"We were No. 1 on defense last year and the first three losses this year were on the defense? My first thought was, 'It's got to be me. [James] Farrior wouldn't give it up like this,' " Foote said.
"You don't lose confidence, but it weighs on you. I'm not going to lie about that."
Foote and Keisel expected much of the blame to come down on themselves and nose tackle Casey Hampton. They are the elder statesmen of the defense. Foote is 32, Keisel, 34, and Hampton, 35. Harrison, 34, avoided the heat because he missed the first three games with a knee injury. He has been quiet since his return, at least by his former NFL defensive player of the year standards.
That isn't to say Foote and Keisel thought the age comments were fair. "Yeah, I'm pretty happy to make a play because I'm old and slow," Keisel said after the game Sunday, the sarcasm evident in his voice and smirk.
Later, he said: "I still feel like I can play. If I couldn't do it, I don't think coach [Mike] Tomlin and the Rooneys would have me out there. We're in the business of winning games. They're not going to play someone who can't help us win."
Keisel and Foote know the time is coming when they can't help the Steelers. They saw longtime teammates Aaron Smith and Chris Hoke retire after last season because of injuries. They watched Farrior get pushed into retirement. Harrison is right. It happens to everybody, eventually.
"Absolutely, you think about it," Foote said. "When you get this old, you know the team can go in a different direction at any time."
"As you get older, you know your clock is ticking," Keisel said. "That's why I just try to enjoy coming to work every day and being with these guys. I love playing for this team so much. But you never know when it's going to end."
Keisel and Foote are more concerned about the next challenge. It is a big one, a road game Sunday against the New York Giants. Two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback Eli Manning leads a Giants offense that ranks fourth in the NFL and is averaging almost 30 points per game.
Right now, after two wins, everybody loves the Steelers defense. But if it fails against the powerful Giants? You know the harsh truth. So do Keisel and Foote.
"I'm sure we'll be old and slow again," Keisel said.
That isn't necessarily fair. But who said life is fair? It's just the way it is for the NFL's 30-somethings.roncook
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.