Credit the Seattle Seahawks or even Warren Sapp. The Steelers aimed to get younger and faster on defense this year and they have done so.
They’ve weeded out players the past two years from a defense Sapp once described as old and slow, with a few exceptions.
Just in the past week, they released Larry Foote, who turns 34 in June; signed 26-year-old Mike Mitchell, a replacement at safety for free agent Ryan Clark, 34; and are trying to find a younger defensive end to take the roster spot of free agent Brett Keisel, who turns 36 in September. All three veterans were starters for them.
They got younger again Friday when they signed nose tackle Cam Thomas, 27 and an unrestricted free agent from San Diego, to a two-year deal. It remains uncertain whether he will start at nose tackle, move nose tackle Steve McLendon to end or serve as a backup.
The only two defensive starters left from the team that opened the 2012 season in Denver are Troy Polamalu, 33 in April, and Ike Taylor, who turns 34 in May — provided Taylor holds down his starting cornerback spot.
Steelers president Art Rooney II, in an interview in early January, said he was not so concerned with his defense growing younger.
“Whether it’s getting younger or what other strategies we might use, we want to get better there,” Rooney said.
But if they weren’t convinced they had to get much younger by watching their defense play last season, the performance of Seattle’s young defense in the Super Bowl helped do so, according to one club source.
The Seahawks overall were the second-youngest team to play in a Super Bowl at an average age of 26.4. The 2005 Steelers who won Super Bowl XL were among the younger teams, too, with an average age of 27.9. And the 2008 team that won it again averaged only one year older.
But by the 2012 season, the Steelers had gotten old. They had the oldest starting defense in the NFL at an average age of 30.1, according to a study done by ESPN’s Mike Sando. Seven of their 11 starters were older than 30. One year later, only two of those over-30s were gone for the 2013 season — linebacker James Harrison, whom they wanted back, and Casey Hampton, who unofficially retired after the Steelers released him.
Now, only Taylor and Polamalu remain, and the Steelers have reduced the average age of their starters from 30.1 two years ago to 27.6 for a projected 10 starters, pending who becomes the second defensive end. Taylor and Polamalu are the only projected defensive starters older than 30. The next oldest are linebacker Lawrence Timmons and McLendon, who turn 28 this year.
Not counting Taylor and Polamalu, the other defensive starters would average 26.1 years.
Here is their breakdown and age for at least most of the 2014 season:
Line — Cameron Heyward (25), Steve McLendon (28), Unknown.
Linebackers — Jason Worilds (26), Jarvis Jones (25), Vince Williams (24), Lawrence Timmons (28).
Secondary — Ike Taylor (34), Cortez Allen (26), Troy Polamalu (33), Mike Mitchell (27).
Ed Bouchette: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @EdBouchette.