DALLAS — The Steelers' defense might be the NFL's best rerun.
While other teams switch to different schemes with different coaching staffs in the span of a few years and shuttle personnel onto and off of the roster, hoping that they'll find the right mix eventually, the Steelers found a core that they liked several years ago and have managed to keep the pieces together.
When Pittsburgh's "D" takes the field at the Super Bowl on Sunday, nine of the 11 starters will be manning the same spots they did on the team that won the title two seasons ago. The two from the 2008 championship team that are not expected to start — DE Aaron Smith and ILB Larry Foote — are on the roster, and Smith would be starting ahead of Ziggy Hood if not for a left triceps injury that has sidelined him since Week Seven. Foote gave way to the younger Lawrence Timmons, who has flourished since getting a promotion last season.
Six of the defensive starters from the Steelers' team that won the Super Bowl at the end of the '05 season are still with the team, and CB Bryant McFadden, DT Chris Hoke, OLB James Harrison and DE Brent Keisel were young, developing backups on that squad.
Two members of the tight-knit group who did dare to explore what NFL life had to offer outside of Pittsburgh after the Super Bowl run in '08 ended up coming back before this season. Foote played in Detroit and McFadden went to Arizona for the '09 season, but Foote ended up re-signing with the Steelers in the offseason and McFadden was traded back in a Draft Day deal.
"It's like they went on a long vacation I guess," Smith told PFW on Wednesday. "You grow with those guys. You know those guys probably better than you know most of your family members.
"Sometimes it's a little too well," he added, jokingly.
When asked about how important the continuity in personnel has been to the Steelers' success, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, in his 38th year as a coach and 12th as a member of the Pittsburgh staff, said it has been "tremendously valuable."
"In fact, it's invaluable," he said.
All of this helps explains why the Steelers' defense hasn't finished a regular season ranked lower than ninth in more than a decade. The Steelers have been ranked first in the league in defense five times since 2001. They finished second in '10.
"They've run the scheme here since coach (Bill) Cowher started in 1992, so when you run the same scheme you can draft players that fit that scheme potentially and you can develop them without having to rush them along too quickly," Steelers' director of football operations Kevin Colbert told PFW. "The longer a guy doesn't play and gets a chance to learn and develop, the better off he's going to be."
That's the philosophy that has worked so well for Harrison, who has become one of the most dominant players at his position after starting only eight times in his first four seasons, and others. FS Troy Polamalu and CB Ike Taylor weren't starting right off the bat when they entered the league in 2003, but they've been right next to each other, on the field for about every snap they've been healthy enough to play, since 2005.
"They know what to expect of each other in a given situation," said Colbert, who is in his 11th year in his role. "The more you have of that, the better your chances are going to be."
It will take re-signing a few key defenders, including Taylor and OLB LaMarr Woodley, for the Steelers to keep the "D" intact beyond Super Sunday, but for at least one more game, NT Casey Hampton, who has been Pittsburgh's top nose tackle since he entered the league in '01, says the familiarity and closeness he and his fellow defenders share, will give Pittsburgh an edge.
"Guys who have been there know what it takes," Hampton said. "We have a veteran defense and guys know how to play and know how to play together. I think that's going to be an advantage, as it always is.
"We're always a great defense year in and year out and I think that's because of the guys who have been here. We've been here such a long time — we know how to play together."
As for those teammates that are potential free agents and the interest they could draw from other teams, Hampton, who re-signed with Pittsburgh last offseason even though he had suggested heading into the '09 campaign that it would be his last with the franchise, said the Steelers' success, and the lack of other teams capable of matching them in that regard, is something that weighs on players' minds before they make a decision about whether to stay or go.
"Why would you want to leave when we win all the time?" he said.