Steelers choose age, hoping for beauty
Thursday, May 12, 2011

It's too late to turn back. The Steelers are all in.

They're a team committed to veteran players, dependent on their experience and familiarity with the system. What choice is there when that nucleus helped produce three Super Bowl teams in six years?

On defense, the strength of the team, veterans dominate nearly every position. If you include left defensive end Aaron Smith who lost his starting job because of injury and right cornerback Ike Taylor who is an unrestricted free agent the Steelers would enter the 2011 season with eight starters age 30 and older, including five starters 33 and older as of September.

Because of its commitment to veterans, the Steelers' front office needs to keep the core of the team intact for at least one more season.

Anything else would be pointless.

What's the sense in the Steelers gearing up for another season with nose tackle Casey Hampton, who turns 34 on Sept. 3 and comes off the field on third down, if they don't re-sign Chris Hoke, a 35-year-old unrestricted free agent, as his backup?

And why would the Steelers continue starting right defensive end Brett Keisel, who turns 33 on Sept. 19 and has missed a total of 12 games since 2008 due to injuries, without bringing back Nick Eason, another unrestricted free agent who turns 31 later this month, for depth at the position?

The advanced age of several key starters necessitated the additions of outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley (age 26), inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons (who turns 25 on Saturday) and defensive ends Ziggy Hood (24) and Cameron Heyward (22) since coach Mike Tomlin's arrival in 2007.

For now, the defense must rely on those veterans. That includes starters, as well as reserves like Hoke, a member of the Steelers since 2001.

"The core of this team has proven over the years they can get the job done on defense," Hoke said Wednesday. "You look at the guys that have been here a long time, every year they tell us we're getting old and can't get the job done. Then we go out and get the job done. Keeping the guys together would benefit the defense."

Hoke has started one game in the past two seasons, but his experience is invaluable. He's more than a backup who fills in for Hampton every now and then. Hoke replaces Hampton, primarily a run stopper, on passing downs.

There's no other Steelers player with experience at nose tackle, unless the team moves Hood, who played defensive tackle in college.

That's a possibility, especially if Smith is fully recovered from a triceps injury that limited him to six games this past season.

However, the Steelers may be cautious and rightfully so about making Smith a full-time starter again; he's missed significant playing time in three of the past four seasons due to various injuries.

That uncertainty adds value to free agents such as Hoke and Eason, who have proven themselves as fill-in starters who can step in at a moment's notice without a big drop-off in performance.

"My first three years in the NFL, I didn't really play. Before that I was on a two-year mission," said Hoke, referring to his Latter-day Saints work in Belgium and France while taking time off from Brigham Young University. "I feel like a 30-year-old has five more years on his body than I have. I don't have a lot of wear and tear on my body. I still have the motivation. I'm staying in shape so that when the time comes, I'm ready to go to work. I still have some years ahead of me."

Eason, who joined the Steelers in 2007, overcame health issues last year that nearly killed him and limited his preparation for training camp. He not only made the team but also started five games when Keisel was injured and had 1 1/2 sacks. He should be a more effective player in 2011 upon making a complete physical recovery and growing more comfortable in his role after another year in the defense.

Hoke said he understands the Steelers have other priorities in free agency, beginning with attempts to re-sign Taylor after the lockout ends. When the time comes, he'd like to negotiate a new contract with the only NFL team he has played for.

"They've got to sign the big dogs first," Hoke said. "Hopefully, when that's done, they'll come to me and get something taken care of."