For Steelers, the youth movement is already underway

Sad news from the Steelers today: longtime defensive lineman Chris Hoke, 35, is going to have season-ending neck surgery and is likely to retire after this season. That makes him the second defensive lineman to have season and likely career-ending surgery this year after Aaron Smith bowed out several weeks ago. 

Heading into this season, the Steelers were an aging team. The defense was the oldest the league had seen this century and after a season opening 35-7 stomping at the hands of the Ravens, everybody officially proclaimed the Steelers “old and slow.” I’m typically one of the more optimistic Steeler fans and even I was very worried. I wrote this when previewing the Titans game: “The Steelers have shown me nothing thus far that would make me believe they could beat a half-decent NFL team.”

But along the way, a funny thing is happened to the old and slow Steelers: they turned into the young and fast Steelers. The injuries and old age that everybody was so worried about early in the year have become almost a blessing in disguise. The team has been forced to play a lot of young players and they have responded very well. Injuries to once-key players like Smith and Bryant McFadden haven’t hurt the team at all. 

The youth movement for the Steelers has arrived. Last Sunday’s win against the Bengals gives us plenty of examples:

Rookie Cam Heyward makes a huge special teams play, blocking what would have been a tap-in field goal by Mike Nugent
2nd year back Isaac Redman went into full Beast Mode on a 27-yard run.
2nd year WR Antonio Brown returned a punt for a TD that basically ended the game
– Lawrence Timmons, still only 25 years old, lead the team in tackles.
Rookie Curtis Brown had two special teams tackles, a category he leads the team in.
Undrafted rookie Weslye Saunders continues to make great blocks in the running game and had another downfield catch for 14 yards.

I could go on and on, but you get the point. The changing of the guard is happening this season for the Steelers. I thought that the current Steelers core — the players who carried this franchise to three Super Bowls and two titles — would define this team for a least a couple more seasons. But what has happened is the players that the Steelers have drafted the past several seasons are just too good and have to play now. 

The Steelers would be a decent team with Hines Ward and McFadden still starting, but Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, William Gay and Keenan Lewis have played so well that they need to get a lot of snaps. Even when Aaron Smith was still starting at the beginning of the year, the defensive line was performing much better with Ziggy Hood and Cam Heyward playing defensive end. 

People often marvel at how competitive the Steelers are every season. I think 2011 is a great example of how the franchise is able to retool instead of rebuild. They are committed to building through the draft and pull in lots of talented players despite drafting late in rounds each spring. Pittsburgh has gotten excellent value out of late round picks and undrafted free agents. Antonio Brown was a 6th round pick. Steve McLendon, Redman and Saunders went undrafted. Gay was a 5th rounder. 

All of these players were acquired cheaply and all are stepping up in 2011 and filling big roles on a Super Bowl contender. They’ve transformed the Steelers from an aging team destined to fade away from prominence into a very athletic and exciting bunch primed for success now and in the future. There’s no better example in how to run an NFL team than the roster Pittsburgh has put together this season.