The Steelers had one of the best defenses in the history of the league this past season. The best ever? Maybe not. While they led the league in just about every stat this year, there are other defenses throughout the league's history that were just as scary, including some of the Steelers' 70s units, the Bears' unit that so completely dominated Super Bowl XX and the Ravens' squad that carried them to the title in 2000.
But, it was clearly the best Steelers' defense of the modern era, topping the squads that featured Steelers' greats Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, and Rod Woodson, among others.
But, as good as the defense was this year, next year's defense will probably be even better. They might not match this year's team in stats since this year's stats were so good, but as an overall unit, next year's squad will likely be even more dominant.
For one, the maestro of the squad, Dick LeBeau is returning. LeBeau is arguably the most important member of the two recent Steelers' Super Bowl champion teams. Ron Jaworski once commented, "Dick LeBeau is arguably the best ever to coach defense." A truer sentence has never been spoken. And that coaching genius is at the top of his game....at 71 years of age. Amazing.
That maestro might have an even more talented cast if characters on this year's team. In fact, barring injuries, that appears to be almost certain. LaMarr Woodley has not peaked yet and is still adjusting to the longer NFL season. He stats, and play, slowed during the second half of the season until he went on an absolute tear in the playoffs. An improved Woodley will likely be joined in the starting lineup by Lawrence Timmons, who showed flashes of greatness playing behind Larry Foote this past season. With the added athleticism of Timmons, experience of Woodley, and with Pro Bowl veterans James Harrison and James Farrior back, opposing quarterbacks are in for tough times in 09.
The defensive secondary might also be better. The big unanswered question is whether or not the Steelers will be able to resign Bryant McFadden. If they are successful, they will have two standout cornerbacks in McFadden and the underrated Ike Taylor with William Gay also likely to improve. Gay was one of the big bright spots on this year's squad and looks like a future stalwart at cornerback. While Deshea Townsend will start to descend due to age, he still is a wily vet who will enable the Steelers to field tremendous nickle and dime packages. Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark may also benefit after another season played together.
While the Steelers' defensive line is starting to age and is likely to get attention in the draft, there shouldn't be much drop-off, if any at all, this season. Aaron Smith remains one of the most underrated 3-4 defensive linemen in the league, Casey Hamton remains an unmovable force in the middle, and Brett Keisel rounds out a very good unit. It is these guys who largely enable the linebackers to run free and wreck havoc.
This year's Steelers' defense will likely represent the peak of this squad. Next year, there are several key defenders with contracts due to expire. It is not likely the Steelers' will be able to keep all of them in the fold. It is hard to imagine a scenario in which they fall off dramatically, but with so many key players with contracts coming due, the following season may represent a small step backwards.
But, this year's season should be another one filled with defensive highlights, in which Steelers' fans actually may look forward to punts because they can't wait to see their defense take the field. They also have a more favorable schedule, and should the Steelers' offense improve, which seems likely, will be on the field less. They have synergy, depth, skill, leadership, and can just plain play lights out football.