Safety least of Steelers' concerns as defense faces change
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For a defense that ranked No. 1 overall in the NFL, the Steelers are confronted with several big questions and significant personnel changes in the first two levels of their unit.
On the defensive line, where longtime backup nose tackle Chris Hoke already has retired, will Aaron Smith be brought back for his 14th season with the team? Will five-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton return and, if so, how will he recover from a second surgery on his left anterior cruciate ligament at age 34?
At inside linebacker, will James Farrior, the team's long-time defensive captain and spiritual leader, continue in the same role at age 37? And will veteran backup Larry Foote become a salary-cap casualty after nine seasons with the team?
But, there are no such concerns or questions at the safety position, where the Steelers have a tandem of Pro Bowlers ---- Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark -- and two backups who are under 30.
Ryan Mundy, Polamalu's backup at strong safety, is a restricted free agent, but he is expected to be re-signed.
Otherwise, the only concern is the one that seems to hover over Polamalu every year -- will he be healthy enough to make it through an entire season? The Steelers took care of any contract concerns about their four-time All-Pro safety when he signed a contract extension right before the 2011 season opener. Polamalu would have been an unrestricted free agent next month.
Polamalu will be 31 in April and is heading for his 10th NFL season, but his bombastic style and unique manner of head-first tackles have resulted in a number of injuries. Polamalu started all 17 games (including the playoff loss at Denver) this past season, but he left two games with what was termed "concussion-like symptoms" and did not return.
Because he did not have as many interceptions last season (2) as he did in '10 (7), when he was the NFL's defensive player of the year, some people thought Polamalu did not have the same impact on the defense as he did a year earlier.
Perhaps. But the Steelers still led the league in pass defense, and Polamalu was as effective playing at or near the line of scrimmage as he was a season earlier.
He did not have a season-changing play like he did in '10 at Baltimore with his strip-sack on Joe Flacco, but he was disruptive in opposing backfields and third on the team with 90 tackles.
He also tied for second in passes defensed (13).
Playing in Polamalu's considerable shadow is never easy, but Clark, 32, has done a good job of doing so in six seasons with the Steelers.
A tenacious hitter, Clark led the team with 100 tackles -- a rarity for a free safety -- but his biggest area of improvement was pass coverage, where he was rarely beaten deep.
To be sure, he was late helping cornerback William Gay on the winning touchdown in the home loss against the Ravens and was out-positioned for a ball on a leaping touchdown catch by A.J. Green in Cincinnati.
But the Steelers allowed a league-low two passes of 40 yards or longer last season, and Clark was one of the reasons.
Maybe it was not so surprising that, with Clark out of the lineup because of health concerns, the Broncos completed five passes of 30 yards or longer in the playoff game.
Clark was rewarded with his first appearance in the Pro Bowl when he was added to the AFC team as a first alternate. It was the first time since Glen Edwards and Mike Wagner in 1976 that the Steelers had both safeties on a Pro Bowl team.
That should bring a small measure of stability to a defense that could be undergoing major changes.
First Published February 18, 2012 12:00 am