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So much is up in the air heading into training camp for the Pittsburgh Steelers this year. Of course, they have to deal with the whole giant f*ckmess created by Ben Roethlisberger who, justifiably, is suspended for the first four games of the season
Coach Mike Tomlin will have to deploy either Byron Leftwich or Dennis Dixon in his place (or some combination of the two), to get through the first four games, which means he has to have one of those guys ready to play quarterback, plus he has to find a balance to get Ben ready, too, for when it’s his time to step back in. That’s a tough task. Who gets the reps? How many? How much? Because Tomlin has to do two things – try to win at least two of the first four games without Roethlisberger and then pray that Roethlisberger can play like he did in 2008 and through much of 2009. It’s a helluva task.
So Tomlin has to deal with all that is unholy coming from the #7 jersey and those offensive players left to clean up after him, plus he has to find a way to hold together a defense that was the best in the league in 2008 and looked aged and decrepit through much of 2009. There is no escaping this: that Steelers defense is old and one of the most productive young guys is pissed off.
ProFootballTalk.com is reporting that linebacker Lamarr Woodley is unhappy with his contract. Woodley is scheduled to make $550,000.00 next year, a situation he characterizes as “all jacked up.” I kind of agree. But re-negotiating in the current CBA limbo is kind of jacked up, too. Which is to say there is a 30 percent rule, meaning that the Steelers could renegotiate and give another 30% over the $550,000 they are to pay Woodley, which would bring his salary to $715,000.
Of course, there are ways around that. Naturally, the Steelers could give Woodley a big fattie of a signing bonus (as the Eagles did with Kevin Kolb), but with the 2011 season up in the air, they might pay a lot for one year if they did that.
Still, the Steelers need to deal in good faith. Woodley is, in my estimation, the most productive player drafted in the Mike Tomlin era, which means he’s not only good, he’s young and good. This combination is invaluable.
The presumed starting defensive 11 players (as indicated by the Steelers own depth chart) are:
On the line, they’ve got Aaron Smith who is 34 and coming off a devastating shoulder injury. This guy is great and if anybody can come back from injury, it’s him; nevertheless, at 34 and playing such a physically grueling position, he does not have too many seasons in front of him. Casey Hampton is 32. Brett Keisel is the youngest starter on the line at 31.
At linebacker, the aforementioned Woodley (25) and James Harrison (32) on the outside. Inside, there is the venerable, wily James Farrior who is 35 and who, despite his greatness, looked every bit of 35 during the Steelers dreadful five-game losing streak last year. And Lawrence Timmons, who is 24 and was selected one pick ahead of Woodley in the 2007 draft, but who hasn’t produced as consistently as Woodley. Yeah, I know he was playing on a sprained ankle (or two) last year, but the guy looked lost half the time. Still, he’s young, so we’ll give him that.
In the defensive backfield, there is the wondrous, magnificent, Troy “Better than Jesus” Polamalu, who battled injuries much of last year. He is 29 years old. Seriously, the guy is better than Jesus, if Jesus had played football, that is. When he’s healthy, he’s the best there is in the league and Dick LeBeau has constructed his defense around this sure knowledge. But without him? They are ordinary. It showed last year when they didn’t have him. The other safety is Ryan Clark who is 30 and who, like Jesus, leads with his head, which leads to a few concussions. That does not bode well for a long career.
Then there’s Ike “Swaggin” Taylor who is 30, but plays like he’s 22 and I don’t mean that in a good way. And William Gay who is only 25. He’s young, but you know, he’s just not really very good. Seriously. Not really very good.
If you’re counting at home, that’s four guys on the whole defense under the age of 30. One of those guys is God. One of them has underperformed but still has tremendous potential. One of them kinda sucks. And the last one is Woodley. Combine past performance with the fact that great players like Farrior, Smith and Harrison cannot play forever, and Woodley is, right this second, their best young defensive bet.