Pittsburgh's defense had a quite unusual season and a few changes will be in order for 2012.
There was nothing unusual about the defense leading the National Football League in both yards allowed and points allowed. They have been consistently good through the years in both areas. However, they set a franchise low with only four fumbles recovered and a total of just 15 takeaways. And their 35 sacks tied for their fewest in 21 seasons.
One theory why the offense ranked just 21st in scoring had to do with their defense not providing them more opportunities by coming up with more turnovers -- they had 35 in 2010.
That defense also gave up the most critical drive of the 2011 season when it allowed Baltimore to drive 92 yards in the final two minutes at Heinz Field to score a touchdown with eight seconds left in a 23-20 Ravens victory that cost the Steelers the AFC North Division title and the No. 1 seed in the playoffs.
The Steelers did show on defense that they were not old and slow, as Warren Sapp called them in the beginning of the season. However, they were hurt. They lost outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley for virtually half a season with a hamstring injury, and Pro Bowl linebacker James Harrison for five games with a broken eye socket and a suspension. Both still had nine sacks apiece.
They lost defensive end Aaron Smith for most of the season with a neck injury. Smith is likely to retire after 13 seasons, 12 as a starter. Longtime backup nose tackle Chris Hoke already has retired and four-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton might be released because of his salary.
The team wants to decide between two veteran inside linebackers, James Farror or Larry Foote; one likely will be released. Cornerback Bryant McFadden, who started in 2010 and opened as their starter in 2011, has been released. The corner who replaced him, William Gay, is an unrestricted free agent.
So two-thirds of their longtime three-man defense line could be gone, as well as a veteran linebacker and a starting cornerback.
"There will be some changes," coach Mike Tomlin said. "We will see where this all takes us."
One change that wasn't made: Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau returns, and he still has plenty of talent to work with including Harrison, Woodley, linebacker Lawrence Timmons, end Brett Keisel and two Pro Bowl safeties, Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark.
Pittsburgh, though, has to be looking closely at drafting a nose tackle on the first round because without Hampton and Hoke, there is little left. There has been talk of moving end Ziggy Hood, drafted No. 1 in 2009 and Smith's replacement last season, to nose tackle. If that happens, 2011 No. 1 pick Cameron Heyward would step into the left end spot.
They drafted those two over the past three years because they saw this day coming, and now they still remain thin on their defensive line.
However, overall they do have the talent to again be a dominant defense in 2012.
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