End of an Era for the Steelers’ Defense

With two retirements, a vaunted defense will never look the same again. Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor have each hung up their cleats after 12 years. Both were taken in 2003—Polamalu in the first round and Taylor in the fourth—and neither one played anywhere but Pittsburgh. They became icons in that city, bringing home two Super Bowl titles.

It wasn’t the Steel Curtain, but the Pittsburgh defense with Polamalu and Taylor was been damn good. They ranked first in the league just two years ago, allowing only 275.8 yards per game. They were even better in 2011, ranking first overall and allowing 271.8 yards per game.

Overall, they never ranked outside of the top 10 in yards allowed for the first 10 years in a row that Polamalu and Taylor were on the roster. They ranked in the top five in eight of those years, and spent an incredible six years ranked No. 1 overall. The best defense in the league, year in and year out.

Defense wins championships. Yes, they got help from Big Ben and Santonio Holmes and The Bus and many others. But that defense put the team in a position to compete every single year, and it brought home those titles. And so much of it was due to that 2003 draft, to Taylor and Polamalu.

Polamalu and Taylor were mainstays in Pittsburgh's defense.

Polamalu and Taylor were mainstays in Pittsburgh’s defense.

The defense fell to 13th in 2013, though, and 18th last season. They were aging. Father Time was catching up. He always does in the NFL, especially for defenders. He shows up in injuries and slower 40 times, in more games on the sidelines and more plays just barely missed rather than spectacularly made. It’s often said that football is a young man’s game, and it’s true, especially on defense.

Some of it was just due to fluke injuries, but maybe you feel it more when you’re getting older. Taylor missed most of last year with a broken arm. Polamalu missed four games sue to a sprained ligament in his knee. Any player can sprain his knee and any player can break his arm, but these things just seem to follow older players around. They don’t heal as easily. It’s always a longer road back.

Polamalu, at least, still felt like he could play at a high level, but he said he was driven to spend more time with his family. He’d done everything he could do at the professional level. He’d won the biggest game, and then he’d won it again. He’d made millions upon millions of dollars. It was time to put his time and energy into the people he loved.

No one can blame him for that. He gave his all to Pittsburgh, just like Taylor did, and the two will go down in the city’s football lore.

But it does leave glaring vacancies in that Steelers’ secondary. The falling overall rankings showed they weren’t nearly as good without the star corner and safety, and now they’re never coming back. On top of that, the legendary Dick LeBeau, a coach who is already in the Hall of Fame, is also gone. He’s been one of the best defensive coordinators in NFL history, and he stepped down earlier this year.

It’s a changing of the guard. The end of an era. The Steelers must be remade, reforged.

This is a tough city, a city used to hard-nosed, old-school football. Clouds of dust and the crack of helmets. And it’s still that city, but a shift is coming. The defense won’t look the same next year, or perhaps the next. But it will be built back up, as Polamalu and Taylor pass the torch to the next generation, because defense is in this city’s blood.

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