Commentary

Expect changes for Steelers in 2010

Originally Published: December 24, 2009
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Steelers defenseGeorge Gojkovich/Getty ImagesAlthough the Steelers' defense ranks sixth in the league, it has been vulnerable this season -- especially in the fourth quarter.

Under terms of a revamped stockholder model, nearly a dozen new partners of Pittsburgh Steelers chairman Dan Rooney and president Art Rooney II will have prized spots in the owner's box at Heinz Field for the 2010 season.

They are almost certain to look down on a Steelers team that has undergone change on the field and the sideline.

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  • Only one season removed from a Super Bowl XLIII championship, the Steelers enter the final two games of the season a .500 team and unlikely to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2006. More important, however, Pittsburgh (7-7) appears to be a flawed club, one that is aging (particularly on defense) and requires some fresh parts and maybe fresher thinking.

    "Everybody probably understands in their hearts that there's going to be some change," acknowledged standout nose tackle Casey Hampton, for nine seasons the centerpiece of the Steelers' renowned 3-4 defense but a veteran expected to move on in free agency. "That's just the way it is."

    Hampton, 32, is part of a defense that began the season with starters who averaged 28.9 years of age, and five them are 31 or older. Only two starters for Sunday's matchup against Baltimore, linebackers LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons, are younger than 28. And it is a unit that has played a significant role in six defeats in which the Steelers led or were tied in the fourth quarter.

    Despite ranking sixth in the league in defense and first against the run, the Steelers have not been as dominant as in the past. Although their 40 sacks rate as the second most in the league, the Steelers have been unable to knock offenses off the field, and only one team has fewer interceptions than Pittsburgh's eight. Pittsburgh cornerbacks have zero interceptions.

    "We're accustomed to being [a defense] that closes out games," said free safety Ryan Clark, another veteran who might exit as an unrestricted free agent. "But that hasn't been the case this season."

    The absence of whirling dervish strong safety Troy Polamalu, around whose unique abilities renowned defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau constructs many of his schemes, has been cited for many of the unit's shortcomings. Polamalu will miss his 10th game Sunday because of a knee injury.

    But the failures reach beyond one man and one unit.

    Several stalwart players -- including Hampton, tailback Willie Parker and kicker Jeff Reed -- are likely to depart through free agency or management's choice. Special-teams coach Bob Ligashesky, whose unit has been deplorable and has surrendered four kickoff returns for touchdowns, could be replaced. Coach Mike Tomlin -- who declared weeks ago that Pittsburgh would "unleash hell" in December but whose team lost the first two games of the month -- must regain locker room confidence and control. During a five-game losing streak that scuttled a 6-2 start to the season, Tomlin threatened to make lineup changes. There were no significant maneuvers, however, until this week, when Tomlin benched starting cornerback William Gay.

    Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians has come under fire despite an attack that ranks eighth in the league. The offense is no longer the grind-it-out Steelers, with about 58 percent of the snaps pass plays.

    "It's probably hard for people to wrap their heads and their fingers around, but this offense is changing," said quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who last week threw for a franchise-record 503 yards against Green Bay. "It's not a run-it-first team anymore."

    Yet the problem is not that Pittsburgh hasn't entirely been able to run the ball at all, but rather that the Steelers haven't been able to run when they want to. And that is pretty much unthinkable for traditional Steelers fans.

    Not qualifying for the Super Bowl tournament is anathema to Steelers fans and the Rooney family. That's why, despite losing seven games by an average of just four points, there will be changes for 2010.

    Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.