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Veterans Are Leading The Steelers’ Defensive Resurgence

Although Ben Roethlisberger is getting most of the headlines, the Steelers defense is playing at a very high level. Find out why.

Bo Marchionte

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Getting younger on defense echoed through Pittsburgh this off-season. However, it didn’t stop the Steelers from bringing back two of the most popular players in recent history.  Out of equal parts nostalgia and desperation, the team resigned both defensive end Brett Keisel and linebacker James Harrison, and if they keep performing as they’ve been general manager Kevin Colbert can gain some steam as a possible ‘Executive of the Year’ candidate.

After nine games, Pittsburgh looks strong with a 6-3 record. Their back-to-back wins over the Indianapolis Colts and Baltimore Ravens have the Steelers back in the conversation as one of the top teams in the AFC. The combination of the older veterans mixing in with the majority of younger faces seems to be a perfect blend.

“I’m going to keep encouraging guys to work,” Keisel said. “Continue to encourage guys to do the little things on a weekly basis to try to make them the best-prepared player and team we can be.”

Previously, Keisel served as a team captain in each of the last two seasons and his positive influence is rubbing off on the younger guys in the locker-room. It has been apparent that Keisel’s leadership and ability to still make plays has been a big plus for the defense. Re-signing Keisel after training camp wrapped up in August looked like the similar routine taken by most veterans; Avoiding the wear and tear of camp and keeping his aged body fresh for 16 games.

Although Brett Keisel enjoyed his “summer break” away from training camp, that wasn’t the plan for James Harrison.

“I had a 99 percent sureness I would not be playing,” said Harrison. “Obviously everything happens for a reason.”

The NFL’s 2008 Defensive Player of the Year and two-time team MVP received a contract to come out of retirement on September 22nd.  Just 17 days earlier Harrison announced his retirement from the NFL. The move to resign Harrison was prompted by injuries to their linebacker unit, and Harrison’s familiarity with Dick Lebeau’s defense made the signing logical for the short-term.

Harrison played in Cincinnati last season after spending the first 10 years of his career in Pittsburgh. Prior to re-signing in Pittsburgh, he recorded three tackles in the Bengals’ home playoff loss to the San Diego Chargers in January. Over the last two games Harrison has recorded four sacks. His highest total in a two game span in his career. He is looking more and more like the Harrison-of-old that helped lead Pittsburgh to three Super Bowls over the last nine years.

Impressive outings by both the offense and defense during the Steelers’ three-game winning streak have plenty of people inside and outside the locker-room excited about the remaining seven games. Pittsburgh has missed the playoffs the last two seasons while  going 8-8 in both which has created some tension. This is a franchise accustomed to winning and playing 16 games isn’t considered a full-schedule in Pittsburgh.

The rejuvenated defensive unit in Pittsburgh is beginning peak at the right time. The red-hot Ben Roethlisberger is feeding off the turnovers provided by the defense, helping him set an NFL record with six touchdown passes in each of the last two games.

“That’s the key,” Roethlisberger said of his defense forcing turnovers. “It’s not always that our defense is getting them (turnovers), but we’re capitalizing.”

Through the first four games, the Steelers forced three turnovers, two fumbles and one interception. Over the past five games, they have 10.

“Feels normal again,” said Steelers’ tight end Heath Miller referring to seeing Harrison and Keisel on the sidelines.

It also feels normal the way the defense is playing in Steel City. Aggressively pursuing the quarterback and forcing turnovers. That is the norm in Pittsburgh and it has not been normal for a while…until they brought back Keisel and Harrison.

Bo Marchionte is an NFL writer for Football Insiders and has covered the NFL for over a decade. His background includes being staff for the Texas vs. The Nation All-Star game as a talent evaluator for player personnel along with an internship scouting with the Toronto Argonauts and Winnipeg Blue Bombers for the Canadian Football League. Bo’s draft background includes working for the NFL Draft Bible and currently owns and operates College2Pro.com. He has done radio spots on NBC, Fox Sports and ESPN and their affiliates in different markets around the country. Bo covers the Pittsburgh Steelers and Pittsburgh Panthers along with other colleges in the northeast.

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