The Steelers expect safety Troy Polamalu and linebacker James Harrison to get back on the field this weekend, and back to fixing a defense that has missed them in recent weeks.
But how much longer they’re going to be able to keep the core of players which have led a dominant together remains to be seen.
With seven starters over 30 (Harrison, Polamalu, Ike Taylor, Ryan Clark, Larry Foote, Brett Keisel and Casey Hampton), a group which has a combined 887 games with the Steelers will likely start to be dismantled because of a combination of performance and finances.
“It is a natural evolution of this business,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin told Alex Marvez of FoxSports.com. “Any of us that are in [the NFL] have to accept it on one level or another whether it’s coaches or players. That’s the mentality I have regarding it.”
All seven of those veterans were there when Tomlin arrived in 2007, and helped him win a Super Bowl. But how long he can hang onto those old heads will determine the direction of the franchise.
They’re still ranked fifth in the league in total defense, but haven’t played that way, giving up 34 and 31 on the road in losses to the Broncos and Raiders. They only have five sacks in three games. Do Polamalu and Harrison make that much of a difference?
“I think that’s why you see things so different when one guy is out,” Clark said. “We’re so built on chemistry and have been around each other for so long. It’s not necessarily the physical play that each player brings. It’s also what they bring with camaraderie, the way things flow on the field.
“When one guy’s missing, it is tough for us to pick it up and understand, ‘We’ve got to find a way to make it work without this piece of the puzzle.’ More than any team, I think we fit as puzzle pieces.”
The Steelers, as an organization, has excelled over the years by knowing when to hang on, and when to let go. But as this group ages, the hard choices are coming.
“We’re not trying to strike a balance [with age],” Tomlin said. “We’re going with the guys who are capable of playing. We’ve got some veteran guys who are still good players. As long as they remain that, they’ll continue to play. We’ve got some young guys with some promise who are working.
“When they’re good enough to play, they’ll be in there.”
Sunday will be an early indication of whether that day’s coming sooner or later.