Grading the roster: Defense

With Mike Tomlin's first season as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the books, Dale Lolley looks at the players he had to work with and grades them by position. Part two of the series, the defense and special teams:

Mike Tomlin had many successes and failures after taking over for Bill Cowher, but he did something Cowher failed to do in his final two seasons – win an AFC North Division championship.

The Steelers, however, fell off after a 7-2 start, stumbling to a 10-6 finish. Here's a position-by-position look and grades for each:


This unit was playing well until end Aaron Smith suffered a season-ending biceps injury in early December. After that, the lack of depth was exposed.

Smith was having another outstanding season before the injury. The loss proved just how valuable Smith is to the team.

Nose tackle Casey Hampton's weight ballooned and he wasn't the force he had been in previous years. Hampton is listed at 325 pounds, but was closer to 350.

Brett Keisel didn't have the breakout season that was predicted, though he did lead the team with eight quarterback hurries and 23 pressures. Those aren't sacks, though, and Keisel needs to be more productive, particularly because he's not as strong against the run as Hampton and Smith.

With backups Travis Kirschke, Chris Hoke and Nick Eason, the team needs to improve its depth. Kirschke is a free agent and could retire, while the team needs an upgrade over Eason. Hoke is solid.

Rookie Ryan McBean replaced Smith when he was placed on IR, but needs to improve drastically if he's going to be in the mix in 2008.

Grade B-


James Harrison not only replaced Joey Porter at right outside linebacker, he played better than Porter had in years, being named second-team All-Pro, earning a Pro Bowl start and winning team MVP honors. He had a team-high 8 1/2 sacks with six forced fumbles and an interception.

With only four sacks, Clark Haggans had one of the least productive seasons for an outside linebacker in recent Steelers history. He's an unrestricted free agent and won't be back, opening a job for talented rookie LaMarr Woodley.

Woodley had four sacks in limited playing time and had two more in the playoff loss to Jacksonville. He and Harrison could each approach double digits in sacks next season.

Inside, James Farrior had another solid season, leading the team with 111 tackles and registering a career-best six sacks. Farrior is 33, so his best days are in the past.

Larry Foote had an up-and-down season. He was third in tackles but can get engulfed at times by blockers. He'll be pushed next season in by first-round pick Lawrence Timmons.

Timmons had an mediocre first season, recording 12 special-teams tackles and two more on defense. This will be a big offseason for the youngster, particularly since he missed offseason workouts and part of training camp last year with a groin injury.

Clint Kriewaldt, Arnold Harrison, Andre Frazier and Marquise Cooper are special teams players, and given the play of that unit, could be looking for work next season.

Grade B


After falling out of favor with Cowher in 2006, cornerback Ike Taylor responded with a good season. He was second on the team with 90 tackles – not always a good measurement for defensive backs – and tied for the lead with three interceptions. Taylor could have had seven or eight interceptions if he could hold onto the ball, but that was a problem for the defense, which produced a league-low 11 interceptions.

Deshea Townsend started opposite Taylor and had a strong season. Townsend will be 33 and can't be counted on forever. He could be replaced by Bryant McFadden. Rookie William Gay took over the No. 4 cornerback spot and showed some talent in the preseason.

At safety, Troy Polamalu, who suffered rib and knee injuries, missed four games. He was fifth on the team with 74 tackles. The Steelers need more big plays out of Polamalu if the defense is to be dominant.

Ryan Clark began the season at free safety, but a spleen problem brought on by playing at high altitudes in Denver ended his season. He should be back in 2008. Anthony Smith and Tyrone Carter split time as Clark's replacement. Smith is a big hitter and has coverage skills, but the coaching staff benched him when opponents figured out he was susceptible to play-action fakes. Carter is a capable backup and a smart player. As a starter, he was exposed as being too slow and too small.

Grade C


Kicker Jeff Reed had one of his best seasons, converting 23 of 25 field goals, and both misses came from more than 52 yards. His kickoffs were stronger.

Rookie punter Daniel Sepulveda had 28 kicks downed inside the 20-yard line and only two touchbacks. He was inconsistent, particularly late in the season when the weather turned bad.

The Steelers got nothing out of their return game as Allen Rossum proved to be ineffective as a punt returner. An upgrade is a must.

The coverage units were mediocre on their best day, terrible on their worst.

Grade C- (The kickers saved it from an F)


Tomlin did a credible job in leading the Steelers to an AFC North title when most picked them to finish third. He also made some critical mistakes, most notably in the playoff loss to Jacksonville. Tomlin did not fare well in his coaching challenges, winning only two of seven. He should get better with experience in all phases.

Despite significant injuries, the defense ranked first in the NFL under coordinator Dick LeBeau, though it did falter at key moments. He'll be back in 2008 for what will be his 50th – and possibly last – year in the NFL.

Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians' offense was different than what many were used to in Pittsburgh. More responsibility was given to Roethlisberger, who responded with his best season, and for that Arians has to receive credit.

Grade B

Dale Lolley appears courtesy of the Observer-Reporter.

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