The Steelers defense that so dominated the NFL in 2008 on the way to winning a Super Bowl was not the same in 2009. It ranked fifth in the NFL, which was the most overrated number used to describe the Steelers the past season.
That defense slipped to 16th from No. 1 the previous year against the pass and teams threw at them at will. They allowed nine pass completions longer than 40 yards after giving up just two in 2008. They have some looming major problems -- in the secondary, where they need to find corners and at least one starting safety; in the defensive line, where age and possible free agency could be devastating; and at linebacker, where age and lack of depth also could do them in.
Other than that, they ranked fifth in the NFL on defense last season.
Coach Mike Tomlin did not make one change on his defensive staff (he did add Jerry Olsavsky as defensive quality control coach), and Dick LeBeau, 72, announced he would return as coordinator. That defense reached its peak in 2008 when it ranked nearly No. 1 across the board -- overall, against the pass and in points allowed, and No. 2 against the run.
This season, they blew leads in five of their seven losses in the fourth quarter. Protecting leads has been a hallmark of Steelers teams; Bill Cowher's record with a lead of 10 points or more anytime during a game was 109-1-1. Tomlin's team in 2009 blew one 13-point lead and another 10-point lead in losses.
The Steelers offense set all kinds of records in 2009. Pittsburgh had its first 4,000-yard passer in Ben Roethlisberger and for the first time had three receivers with 70 catches or more (Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes and Heath Miller).
"I feel like we had our moments where we were unstoppable," Roethlisberger said. "We had moments where we stopped ourselves, and moments when the defense stopped us. I think it's a building block for us, I think we're still very young on offense and I really think that the sky can be the limit for us."
They have the skill position players to do it but not the offensive line. That line did not blow anyone off the ball in the run game and Roethlisberger was sacked a career-high 50 times.
"There are going to be some hard decisions made in the offseason," left tackle Max Starks said. "This unit has been pretty intact for a lot of veterans but you have to realize there are going to be changes and you have to embrace those changes and move forward."
Ward, who turned in his sixth 1,000-yard season and led the team with 95 catches, agreed.
"The makeup of this team is going to change."
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