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Steelers defense a long way from ‘greatest of all time’

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Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Steelers safety Troy Polamalu reacts after being flagged for a hit on Ravens receiver Steve Smith during the third quarter Thursday, Sept. 11, 2014, at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.
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Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Steelers safety Troy Polamalu sits on the bench with the defense during the third quarter against the Ravens on Thursday, Sept. 11, 2014, at M&T Bank Stadium.

Troy Polamalu knows it might be blasphemous to say this only a few weeks before Joe Greene’s No. 75 jersey is retired and the Steel Curtain’s significance in NFL history is restated.

The 2008 Steelers defense, to him, is the best of all time.

Better than the ’70s Steelers of Mean Joe, Jack Lambert and Mel Blount. Better than the ’85 Bears. Better than last year’s Seahawks.

“It’s the greatest of all time. Absolutely. Honestly,” Polamalu said Wednesday. “The game has evolved so much, and we still broke all the records.”

However, the defense hasn’t evolved in the six years since.

The defense that was No. 1 five times and No. 2 twice under Dick LeBeau is 29th against the run and 20th overall. It more closely resembles the Steelers of the ’50s than of the ’70s.

“I’m accustomed to being the No. 1 defense, and I think when we’re even a No. 4 or No. 5 defense, that still doesn’t cut it,” Polamalu said. “We’ve been No. 1 at least half the time coach LeBeau has been here, and in a 10-year period, that’s probably never happened ever.”

In 2008, the NFL was racing toward the fast game of today. Yet the Steelers put up defensive numbers that look almost antiquated: 1,284 rushing yards allowed, 2,511 passing yards and 19 TDs in 16 games.

They also had the most difficult schedule of any Super Bowl winner, playing six games against teams that won 11 games or more.

“Pretty much everybody was an all-star on that defense,” Lawrence Timmons said. “It was like a Pro Bowl team before the Pro Bowl. And we enjoyed playing so much, it was like people were fighting to get on the field.”

That cast has changed except for Polamalu, Ike Taylor, Brett Keisel and Timmons. And the defense that once stopped every running game in the league has transformed into one that can hardly stop any.

The 2008 starters have combined to start 102 NFL seasons and appear in 24 Pro Bowls. By comparison, eight of the 11 players currently listed as starters on the Steelers depth chart have started two seasons or fewer, counting this season.

So what’s happened since 2008?

They haven’t found free agent gems such as James Harrison, and they haven’t received as much return from the draft when compared to other draft classes in recent history.

And they’ve lost the intimidation factor they had with Harrison, Aaron Smith, James Farrior and Casey Hampton — an aggression that led the NFL to start fining teams for its players’ acts.

What about the coaching? Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is the focal point of fan attention at age 77, but the Steelers have one of the most experienced staffs in the league in linebackers coach Keith Butler, who could have been a coordinator by now; John Mitchell, Richard Mann and a former defensive coordinator named Mike Tomlin. Coaches often are only as good as their players.

But these Steelers have proven not to be as fundamentally sound, either. Keisel talked earlier in the week about the necessity of this influx of new players buckling up and learning what often is referred to as the Steeler Way.

“You can’t constantly rely on someone patting you on the back,” Keisel said. “You’ve got to be a pro. You’ve got to approach it like a pro. You’ve got to study like a pro.”

Polamalu agreed but also said, “We also have to step up as older guys, as well. … (Having a lot of new starters) is a new thing around here. This defense takes a long time to learn. The onus really falls on everybody. I wouldn’t just say the young guys.”

Especially when 2008 looks to be so long ago.

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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