December 30, 2012; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel (99) on the field before playing the Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field. The Pittsburgh Steelers won 24-10. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Warren Sapp says Pittsburgh Steelers defense is still old and slow

Seems Warren Sapp is once again looking for a little attention.

On the NFL Network this week, Sapp repeated his 2011 claim that the current Steelers defense is too old and slow. The former perennial All-Pro defensive lineman said, “seven of the 11 starters are 28 years or older, and that’s around the time, in this league, they go to questioning, you know, ‘Where’s his legs? Should we look for the backup?’”

The issue with Sapp’s brash words is the Steelers did find younger legs to back up their seasoned veterans, and those old veterans continue to outplay the “youngins” on the bench, as the team was first in the NFL in yards allowed per game in 2012.

Feb 3, 2013; New Orleans, LA, USA; Newly elected to the NFL Hall of Fame member Warren Sapp (left) gets a hug from Adam Shafter before Super Bowl XLVII at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Jack Gruber-USA TODAY Sports

Sapp started off by targeting the elder of the defense, Brett Keisel. Keisel turns 35 at the start of the season. His backup is 2011 first-round selection Cameron Heyward. It’s hard to see what they have in Heyward with Keisel still getting it done. Keisel netted 4.5 sacks in 2012, the second most in his 12-year career.

That would’ve been a good year for the former defensive tackle Sapp. In his 12th season, Sapp grabbed 10 more sacks to add to his career totals. Not bad for an old player over the age of 28.

The Steelers did choose youth over experience at nose tackle this offseason. Out with the 35-year-old Casey Hampton, and in with 27-year-old Steve McClendon. McClendon sat behind “Big Snack” Hampton at the starter’s table since 2010. While Casey won the line battles with sheer massiveness, McClendon is the quickest nose tackle the Steelers have ever had suited up. He has shown the ability to pressure quarterbacks and is determined to be a three-down lineman. He deserves the opportunity. Playing just a third of the snaps in 2013, McClendon still recorded two sacks, one forced fumble and two QB hurries.

Sapp saved his final critique for the Steelers secondary. Like the rest of the defense, the secondary was highly ranked in 2012. They were No. 1 in the league against the pass, allowing just 185 yards per game. Still, Sapp charges teams like the Patriots and Broncos have the blueprint to beat the Steelers: attack their aging leader, strong safety Troy Polamalu.

Despite the criticism, Polamalu looked back to form at the close of 2012. The nagging calf injury from 2011 is finally a thing of the past – just like the talk of his career being over. Polamalu is due for a surprisingly super season in 2013.

Free safety Ryan Clark  had an unsung MVP season, leading the Steelers’ most improved unit. With injuries to the teeth of the defense  (James Harrison, Lamar Woodley and Polamalu), Clark’s big hits and barks from the secondary set the tone. He recorded the most tackles of his 11-year career: 102 (74 solo), plus two interceptions.

Durability hasn’t been as much of an issue for Clark; however, at age 33, he isn’t any faster. In truth, I am more concerned with the legs of Ryan Clark than Polamalu. The Steelers did add safety Shamarko Thomas in the draft. Thomas has 4.3 speed and the toughness to cover tight ends. Secondary coach Carnell Lake should have Thomas ready to replace Clark in coverage when necessary.

They might be old and slow to Sapp, but the Steelers defense has the roster to prove him wrong once again

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Tags: Brett Keisel Cameron Heyward Pittsburgh Steelers Troy Polamalu

  • Adam Banig

    The defense isn’t as old as last year, as you pointed out. Sapp could have went in a different direction with his rant. As you said, they’re moving on from the 35 year old Hampton and Harrison. In the secondary their projected #2 and 4 cbs (possibly 3rd)- Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown are under 25. The steelers best pass rusher (Woodley) is in his prime and their best defender (Timmons) is in his prime. They have young depth along the DL with Heyward, Woods, Ta’amu and Fangupo. THey have young depth at LB with Spence (if healthy), Vince Williams, Jarvis Jones (or he may start over Worilds), chris Carter and Adrian Robinson. Then at safety, they moved on from the failed experiments of Will Allen and Ryan Mundy to youngsters Robert Golden and Shamarko Thomas (who reminds everyone of Bob Sanders).

    So they’re only in a few spots, but the old players are productive as you pointed out. The young depth is there developing and it seems those young guys are just about ready to take over.

    • Erin McDowell

      He certainly enjoys picking on the Steelers! If Vince Williams has some speed, he may replace Larry Foote making the Steelers even younger. Not that younger is always better–but Foote should be challenged this season

  • Harvey Williams

    Sapp has been wrong more than he has been right. He seems to have an axe to grind against Pittsburgh. I don’t know why they keep him on TV other than he is someone to laugh at.

  • Carl Eagan

    Sapp hasn’t been relevant for years, he wass elected to the HOF because he is black, declared bankruptcy, and domestic abuse and don’t forget refused to pay child support. If he would have been a white player he wouldn’t have made the HOF with his career stats and definitely wouldn’t have been considered with his legal past.

  • Adam Banig

    Linebackers Coach Keith Butler on Sean Spence

    Is Sean Spence and inside or outside linebacker?
    He is going to be inside. They (Miami) have played in a 4-3 front, but it’s a different front than ours. We see him as an inside linebacker.

    Are the days of Levon Kirkland playing the buck long gone? He seems pretty small?
    I wouldn’t say that. This guy is smaller than Levon Kirkland. Sean is a very instinctive, fast, quick kid that is very smart. He is probably best served if we can cover him up. What I mean by that is; if you look at James Farrior, he played the last four or five years at 230 pounds and when you get older like that, it’s best to be playing at 230 pounds as opposed to 235 pounds because he knows the game well enough that he is going to act fast enough and he can use the techniques and knowledge of the game, he doesn’t have to be as heavy. It’s better for him so he can keep his mobility, because that’s more important than anything else. This guy has that mobility.

    Is this guy a buck?
    I wouldn’t call him a buck, no. The buck linebacker has to be a little bit bigger and take on the guards more. We cover our linebackers up pretty good. What I mean by that is, we let them scrape and run to football a little bit more instead of coming downhill and taking on isos. The day of the iso with the middle linebacker is almost gone. Everybody is using tight ends as fullbacks and sometimes they use them when trying to lead and sometimes they don’t. A lot of stuff today is mis-direction and trying to fool you or out-number you one way and then give you a different look coming back the other way. A lot of that requires the ability to read from the linebackers now-a-days, not so much to get down and stuff a hole. Sometimes you have to do it on the goal line when you have to take on a big running back, but we’re taking on Ray Rice, we’re not taking on Jerome Bettis anymore.

    Are you happy with what you have at inside linebacker right now?
    Yes. I think we can always get better. You lose a guy like James Farrior, which you’re never going to replace because of all the intangibles he brings to the table, that’s just impossible to replace all of that. We feel good about who we have inside right now and we’ll have to grow and learn as we go.

    Where is he in terms of being NFL-ready?
    He’s going to help us on special teams. He’s not going to start at “mack” linebacker over Lawrence Timmons. That isn’t going to happen.

    James Farrior used to talk about how complex the “buck” linebacker position is. Who do you have in the pipeline there?
    The pipeline is going to be Sly (Sylvester Stevenson). Larry Foote is going to be the starter. Larry Foote knows this defense in and out. He’s been in this defense for 10 years. If anybody knows this defense it’s Larry Foote The guy behind him is Sylvester Stevenson. Sylvester has been with us a couple of years. He’s a very sharp young man, and he’ll be even better. Last year I required him to know a bunch of different positions, and he knew them well enough to put him in there when we needed him. We had some injuries more than once last year, and he was able to play different positions. That will be required of him again this year. For him and all the other linebackers, they have to move around. Lawrence Timmons moved around. He’s played inside and outside. I would prefer to leave Lawrence inside and give him a chance to get some of the recognition. I feel like he’ll play well enough to get the recognition that he deserves, because I feel he’s one of the better linebackers in the league. I feel if we can keep him at one position, inside, then he has a chance to be one of the better linebackers in the league.

    Larry Foote is a very capable starter for us, and there won’t be much dropoff by having him in there. Our two outside guys are good players, as you know. Jason Worilds really came on and played well last year for us. The more he played, the better he got. What probably hurt our young guys last year, (Stevenson and Worilds) those two guys didn’t have OTAs. Most of the time young linebackers get better their second year because of the OTAs. The first year, they come in and they go through a complex system. They’re having to think out there, and as a consequence they don’t move very fast. They’re thinking. The next year they come in and it’s night and day for them because of repetition. They go, “Oh, that’s what we did. That makes sense now.” They move much faster. Well, these guys didn’t have the benefit of those OTAs, and we had to get them in training camp and they were like rookies. Instead of having the OTAs and the minicamp again and then the training camp, they just had training camp. We took out two-thirds of that process for them to learn by having the lockout. That hurt them quite a bit in my opinion, and Jason Worilds really came on for us at the end of the year. I’m sure that Sly will do the same thing this year.

    Does Sylvester have long-term starting potential?
    I need to see more from him. He might think he does, but he has to convince me first.

    Do you see Worilds at inside or outside linebacker?
    Worilds played outside for us last year and did a great job. Can he play inside? Maybe he can. We’ll see. We might give him a look at that. Right now we need him at outside. Chris Carter has a lot to learn. He was one of those rookies last year that gets the benefit of that second year this year. I have my work cut out for me as a coach.

    Did they ask if you wanted Hightower and did you say, ‘No, we’re good’?
    No, I didn’t say that. (Laughter) I didn’t say that and whoever said I said that wasn’t exactly telling the truth. I didn’t say that. They didn’t ask me. I was kind of standing on the table a little bit, but they didn’t ask me.