Monday, January 6, 2014

The Steelers Aged Defense - Legacy or Lethargy? Pt. 1

by Jason and Jayden
The hardest thing to learn in life is which bridge to cross and which to burn. - David Russell

The Pittsburgh Steelers are at a crossroad. Their future and whether or not they will end up as better than a .500 ball club, largely will be determined by the decisions they make this off season.

Do they extend quarterback Ben Roethlisberger this off season or next? For how long and for how much will they extend him? A topic we've discussed already earlier this season. - http://tinyurl.com/mrcyaue

But several others, whether because of age, contract restraints or performance happen to be in similar straits. And all of whom are on defense.

Point blank, it's time to make some hard decisions and maybe even just rip the band aid off. Some difficult choices may have to be made, but, like the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette wrote, "the Steelers defense needs a face-lift." - http://tinyurl.com/lv25wvq

The men we're talking about in particular are outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley, safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark, cornerback Ike Taylor and defensive end Brett Keisel

All of them beg the question of whether to cross that bridge or to burn it. Of whether to a allow them to add to a legacy or to keep them and risk another defense mired in lethargy. And if it is the latter, they'd assuredly be burned in effigy.

If It Ain't Steel has dealt with the LaMarr Woodley situation already, and how fellow outside linebacker Jason Worilds plays into it. We pointed out that "over the course of the last three years, Woodley has seen his play and time on the field diminish. He has played in only 34 games, has missed 14 games as well as being unable to finish several others due to injury and has recorded just 18 sacks."

But it would be difficult, as well as potentially premature, to summarily dismiss Woodley based on these facts alone. The business side of things says that "Woodley is scheduled to earn $8 million in 2014 and to count $13.59 million against the Salary Cap. If the Steelers release him before June 1st, though, he will be a $14.17 million dead money hit against the 2014 cap...."

"However, if the Steelers designate Woodley a June 1st release, they'd carry his full $13.59 million cap hit until then. That would save them his $8 million base salary, again against the Cap....But, they would still suffer a $8.58 million 2015 dead money hit because of the prorated money from bonuses and restructures still on the books." - http://tinyurl.com/k3jbzol

That could prevent the Steelers from signing Worilds if they wanted to go that route instead. Worilds, who is an unrestricted free agent after the season, has likely played himself into a contract worth tens of millions of dollars.

Though there will be salary/contract cuts (such as those of Plaxico Burress and Levi Brown), the Steelers could find doing such a deal difficult. They could and probably would designate him as their franchise player, at a cost of about $9 million, giving them the time needed to then work out a long-term deal.

However they do it, it won't be easy because of having painted themselves in a proverbial corner. But Worilds is a definite priority and at least the fan base has somewhat soured on Woodley. Not the same can be said about a certain someone else.

Although he is no longer in the discussion as the NFL's best strong safety, Troy Polamalu had a resurgence this season and once again was voted to the Pro Bowl - this time deservedly so.

Polamalu started all 16 games this season and played the highest percentage of snaps run from the box (as a hybrid linebacker) among safeties (79.8%), per Pro Football Focus. He accounted for 50 tackles, 11 passes defended, five forced fumbles and one fumble recovery, two sacks two interceptions and one touchdown.

The problem, though, is that he will have the NFL's highest cap number among safeties in 2014 at almost $10.9 million. He is in the final year of a three-year, $29.6 million contract extension, and the Steelers would clear up $8.25 million of cap room if he is let go. And for a soon-to-be 33-year old safety who has become a liability in coverage, that might be too much.

Unlike Woodley, however, there is no depth behind Polamalu. So that levels the playing field slightly. Additionally, even in the twilight of his career, Polamalu is still one of the better strong safeties in the league, and could still provide the needed tutelage for young Shamarko Thomas. So, a short-term extension (a la Larry Foote) could reduce his cap number and keep him in a Steelers uniform for another year, two at the most.

Beyond that is the great likelihood that he will be the only one playing the role of Mentor for the aforementioned Thomas as Ryan Clark is unlikely to be re-signed.

“I’m playing,” RC25 said after the Steelers defeated the Browns at Heinz Field to end the season. “Where that’s going to be I’m not sure."

Neither are we.

RC25 is a favorite of ours around here, but we know that nothing lasts forever - like his ability to tackle. Despite registering 104 tackles this season and despite what head coach Mike Tomlin would contend, RC25 was terrible in his tackling all season. Terrible in that his angles were often bad or in his missing ones he should have had.

The only way, in fact, that the Steelers would even consider bringing him back is for the veteran minimum for a player with at least 10 years, which is $955,000. Does that work for him, though?

"I think I’m worth more than that, and if they decide that I’m not, then you have to understand that and you have to move on. I respect the business."

Simply put, the season home finale was likely a homecoming for RC25. A fact of which he is well aware.

"They've got Hall of Famers that have finished in different jerseys," said RC25, "so I know I am going to be no different, and that's ok with me." - http://tinyurl.com/n6cb82m

That's three of the main five in question. Two remain at the crossroad, and we'll discuss which road will be less travelled by in part two.