On the Steelers: Expect a defensive upheaval Farrior, Hampton candidates to go

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Warren Sapp's infamous shot across the Steelers' defensive bow -- old, slow and it's over -- might have been a bit premature when he said it after their opening 35-7 loss in Baltimore.

Now the Steelers' hierarchy will deliver that message. Look for them to drop the hammer before March 13 on as many as four players who opened the season as starters in that game against the Ravens, and maybe not stop there.

The defense that yielded the fewest total yards, total points and total yards passing will take the biggest hits all over the next few months. Injury, age and the salary cap are the culprits.

The Steelers are $25 million over the roughly $124 million salary cap that will go into effect March 13. That, Steelers president Art Rooney said Tuesday, will call for some tough decisions. What makes some particularly difficult are the long and distinguished careers that either will end or reach their Pittsburgh end soon.

Candidates on defense to be released and their scheduled 2012 salaries that would vanish if they are: Aaron Smith ($2.1 million), Bryant McFadden ($2.5 million), James Farrior ($2.82 million), Casey Hampton ($4.89 million), and Larry Foote ($3 million).

Releasing those five would whittle $15.31 million from their salary cap. In addition, William Gay and Chris Hoke will be unrestricted free agents.

That comes to four starters, whether you count McFadden on opening day or Gay, who replaced him; a virtual starter in Foote; and a longtime starter-capable backup in Hoke.

Poof, $15 million erased from the cap!

But can the Steelers afford to lose so much on defense, not only in physical talent but in the intangibles that many of those players bring, all at once?

Maybe not. They might, for example, want to keep either Farrior or Foote, perhaps see which one might play for much less in 2012. Gay also has become a valuable cornerback for them. If they believe Keenan Lewis or one of the two rookies, Curtis Brown or Cortez Allen, are not yet ready to start, they may try to re-sign Gay.

Farrior has been their heart and soul for years, and losing him would punch a leadership hole into one of the longstanding best defenses in the NFL. He is 37 and not the same linebacker he was only a few years ago, but he still ranked fourth in tackles and had two sacks. Farrior could be brought back for one more season of transition for the defense; or Foote, another recognized leader and 51/2 years younger, might be the one. Bringing both back may be asking too much of this cap-strapped team.

Smith and Hoke had neck surgeries in the fall that, combined with their age, likely will prompt either of them or the Steelers to call it quits. Hampton, on the other hand, escaped without needing surgery on his ACL knee injury from the playoff game in Denver. However, his salary and his role as a part-timer who plays only in the 3-4 base defense could prompt a parting of the ways. They could ask him to take a drastically reduced salary but Hampton has never come across as one willing to do that. He is Big Snack, after all, not Little Snack.

Untouchables on defense and their 2012 salaries are Troy Polamalu ($7.5 million), LaMarr Woodley ($9 million), James Harrison ($6.57 million), Ike Taylor ($6 million), Brett Keisel ($2.82 million), safety Ryan Clark ($3 million) and Lawrence Timmons ($5.37 million). However, it does not mean they cannot try to restructure any of those contracts to save salary cap charges in 2012.

When the smoke clears, what kind of defense might they have? Perhaps not one much different than what they had in 2011.

Hampton's possible loss would prompt the biggest facelift. He has been a fixture at nose tackle since 2001. His possible replacements range from current backup Steve McLendon to end Ziggy Hood to a draft choice. Moving Hood would affect two positions, but they also drafted Cameron Heyward to play defensive end and that would open the job for him. Depth might be a problem, although they have shown some interest in young backups at end, Al Woods and Corbin Bryant.

Timmons would be paired at inside linebacker with either Foote/Farrior or Stevenson Sylvester. The corners would be Taylor and Gay or one of three others. Their safeties would remain the same.

It may not look to be as formidable a lineup as what opened the 2011 season, but it has its possibilities, maybe to be even more effective. They would take huge steps toward improvement if their two former Pro Bowl outside linebackers can stay healthier in 2011. Woodley had nine sacks in the first half of the season, then hardly played in the second half. Harrison had nine sacks and missed five games.

Having those two play more often also might help their turnovers, which were their major shortcoming in 2011, second only to them allowing the 92-yard drive by Baltimore to pull that game out at Heinz Field with six seconds left. The AFC championship game might have been held at Heinz this afternoon had they somehow prevented that Ravens' touchdown.

The Steelers managed only 15 takeaways last season, their historical low and more than half what they had in 2011, when they forced 35. Art Rooney on Tuesday noted that as one of the negatives for the 2011 season.

The lack of turnovers were likely an anomaly since they were so good at it just one year earlier. That, then, is bound to improve in 2012.

The Steelers also made a drastic changeover on defense that some saw as a negative but, in this era of increased passing, may be a move in the right direction, whether conscious or not in its development. They not only ranked No. 1 in stopping the run in 2010, they were the third-best team at doing so since the 16-game schedule started in 1978. They allowed just 62.8 yards rushing per game. In 2011, that ballooned to 99.8, still a respectable ninth in the NFL but not nearly as dominant.

However, the tradeoff may have come in their defense vs. the pass. They were No. 1 in 2011, allowing 171.9 yards per game, compared to 214.1 per game the previous season.

In the NFL of the 21st century, stopping the pass has become more important than stopping the run. However, swiping some of those passes must become part of their equation in 2012.

As Rooney noted, the Steelers must make tough decisions, and many will come on defense. But that does not mean those decisions need to weaken their defense.

"We have a good mix of younger players and veterans on this team," Rooney said. "We need the younger players to keep coming on and I think this offseason is particularly important for a group of those guys."

Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com . First Published January 22, 2012 5:00 AM


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