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A Thought About the Pittsburgh Steelers: The New Over-The-Hill Gang

The defending AFC Champions have lots of potential story angles, from Ben Roethlisberger’s unique style, the offensive line issues, Mike Wallace, to the Super Bowl Loser’s Curse (I don’t believe in curses, and the losers have made the playoffs almost as frequently as winners). However, I’m going to focus on the defense and its aging core.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have a chance to surpass the famed Over the Hill Gang, specifically the 1974 version of the Washington Redskins, who are the only team since the merger to have 8 defensive players in their 30’s start at least half the team’s games in a season. Pittsburgh could have as many as 9 starters who have turned 30 years old on the field in 2011.

Of the more than 1200 team seasons since 1970, only 56 teams had 6 or more starters who were age 30 or older, including Pittsburgh in each of the last two seasons. This year, ILB James Farrior (36 years old), DE Aaron Smith (35), NT Casey Hampton (34), DE Brett Keisel (33), OLB James Harrison (33), FS Ryan Clark (32), and CB Ike Taylor (31) will be joined by SS Troy Polamalu, who already turned 30, and CB Bryant McFadden, who will be 30 in November. Ziggy Hood has a chance to start at one of the defensive end positions, but if he doesn’t, then linebackers Lawrence Timmons and Lamarr Woodley will be the only starters under 30.

When I look at the 16 other teams to have 7 or more defensive starters over the age of 30, there wasn’t much dropoff from the year before on average. However, there is a selection bias problem here. If we know a team had a lot of veteran starters, they were probably (a) good enough to keep starting, and (b) stayed healthy. For example, on that 1974 Redskins, which repeated the 10-4 record from the year before, the starters only missed 3 games all year.

If we focus on teams that made playoff runs (conference championship game or beyond) with an aging core of 6 or more thirty-somethings, and how they did the next season, we get only 8 teams. (2003 and 2006 Patriots, 1997 Broncos, 1996 Panthers, 1990 Raiders, and 1973, 1976, and 1977 Vikings). Those teams declined by 2.8 points on average the following season.

So, Pittsburgh’s success likely depends on this new version of the Over the Hill Gang on defense staying reasonably healthy in 2011. We saw how a noticeably hampered Troy Polamalu affected the Steelers’ defense in the Super Bowl, and if the safety breaks down again, it could lead to a unit wide decline. Veteran players are good because they know what they are doing. Older players generally play well right until that unpredictable moment they stop ceasing to do so, but the end can come swiftly. I’m a little concerned about the combined ages on that defensive front, though the team overcame Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel both missing time last year.

More concerning, though, should be the general trends with dominant defenses, even setting aside the age concerns. Defenses are like chains, and one break in the chain can cause issues. An offense can choose to hide its weakness or try to protect and adapt the way it calls plays; defenses are at the mercy of an offense that will seek out the weak link.

38 teams since 1990 have allowed 240 or fewer points in a season, including 6 different Steelers teams. Those teams went from allowing 220 points on average (232 for Pittsburgh last year) to 308 points the next season.  Half of them missed the playoffs the following year, and the average win total went from 11.9 to 9.3. The Steelers have missed the playoffs after each of the last two Super Bowl appearances, which would just be an anomaly except defensively dominant teams don’t hold their value as well as dominant offenses. Pittsburgh has allowed 324 points after the five previous seasons since 1990 of allowing fewer than 240 points, so the Steelers are not immune to this effect.

If they want to reverse that in 2011 and return to the playoffs, the New Over the Hill Gang will need to keep its key core players healthy, and hope the defense is better than the average dominant defensive group a year later. I don’t think they completely fall apart, but I think 10-6 is more likely than another 12-4 season.

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[photo via Getty]

 

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