When will the Pittsburgh Steelers defense be at full strength? They have only been able to field the unit which started in Super Bowl XLV four times since September 2011. They have not been able to this season.
Among those who have missed time are linebackers James Harrison and Lamar Woodley, safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark and nose tackle Casey Hampton. The Steelers were able to work through these absences and finish 12-4 in 2011. However, they caught up with the team as it suffered a first round playoff defeat to the Denver Broncos.
When healthy, Pittsburgh has fielded one of the best defenses in football. Woodley and Harrison are both Pro Bowlers and as a pair form one of the best pass rushing combos in the NFL. Polamalu and Clark are one of the best safety tandems. Polamalu gets most of the publicity, but Clark has been a steadying force since coming to the team in 2006. Along with end Brett Keisel, Hampton has shored up a defensive line that shuts down the run with the best of them.
Harrison and Woodley have not been on the field together since week four of the 2011 season. First it was Harrison with a broken orbital bone. Then Woodley who suffered a pulled hamstring against the New England Patriots in week eight. In all Harrison and Woodley took the field together only four times in 2011. This season Harrison has yet to play due to knee surgery performed in August.
Polamalu and Clark were together more often. They started every game though Polamalu suffered a concussion and missed the second half against the Kansas City Chiefs. Clark had to sit out the playoff game against Denver, because of complications from Sickle Cell trait. He missed the first game of this season for the same reason. Polamalu played in that game, but missed Sunday’s battle with the Oakland Raiders, because of a calf injury.
Of course, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin will play the hand he has been dealt. His motto is, ‘No excuses and no explanations.’ He expects the men who are there to step in and do the job.
However, the Steelers are a better team when their veterans are on the field. Woodley and Harrison compliment each other in that if a team concentrates on stopping one then the other can get to the quarterback, Clark allows Polamalu to be reckless up around the line of scrimmage by covering the area left open. Hampton takes up blockers so linebackers like Lawrence Timmons can make tackles.
The absence of Clark and Harrison showed in a week one loss to the Broncos as Pittsburgh was unable to get to quarterback Peyton Manning or cover receivers on the back end. This was the case Sunday against the Raiders as Harrison and Polamalu sat out.
Woodley and Clark are on the field. No one knows when Polamalu or Harrison will return.
It may be awhile before we see the Steelers defense at full strength.