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Dawn of a new era: Will defensive change invigorate or inhibit Steelers?

It's the dawn of a new era in Pittsburgh: The Steelers defense just saw a ton of proven leadership walk out the door, and they need to re-invent themselves to a degree on defense this season. Who will step up?

LATROBE, Pa.—The Pittsburgh Steelers are one of the NFL’s most storied and history-rich franchises, so they should well appreciate the following slice of their lofty statistical record: When defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, safety Troy Polamalu, defensive lineman Brett Keisel and cornerback Ike Taylor exited stage left this offseason in Pittsburgh, they took with them a staggering 53 seasons worth of Steelers defensive expertise and experience.

In fact, this will be the first year since 2001 that no one in that accomplished foursome will be employed by the Steelers; the team has had at least one of those names on the payroll for 18 of the past 23 years—a period that dates back to 1992, when LeBeau was first hired by the team.

So, welcome to 2015 in Pittsburgh, which is clearly the dawn of a new era in terms of the Steelers’ proud tradition on defense. But will all that change—however necessary it might have been—be invigorating or inhibiting in the Steel City? And will it lead to the needed resurgence for a unit that ranked just 12th and 18th the past two seasons in terms of yards allowed, the worst two finishes for a Steelers defense since LeBeau was hired as coordinator in 2004?

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“It’s a challenge, but I think it’s a challenge competitors embrace,’’ Steelers ninth-year coach Mike Tomlin said Wednesday at Pittsburgh’s training camp, two days before his team resumes its preseason schedule with Friday night’s game at Jacksonville. “I don’t fear that transition. That’s part of ball. Those men that were here with us for a long time performed at an extremely high level. Those are special men and are a special group, but you move on. Like sands through an hour glass, so are the days of our lives. Know what I mean?

“This transition is going to allow a new group to form and guys to ascend. You can’t rush that. It happens through time, and I’m interested in watching it develop as we push through this journey that is the 2015 season.’’

Nobody can make offseason moves sound quite as high-minded and lyrical as the always well-spoken Tomlin, but the reality is the Steelers just saw a ton of proven leadership walk out the door, and they need to re-invent themselves to a degree on defense this season. Tomlin has challenged the Pittsburgh defense to re-interject itself back into the picture in terms of the league’s elite groups on that side of the ball, but it’s a process very much in its formative stages on every front, starting with the elevation of longtime Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler to the defensive coordinator post.

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There’s no shortage of youthful talent on defense in Pittsburgh, with five first-round picks in the front seven and only one starter, cornerback William Gay (30), older than 29. But with seven defensive starters at 26 or younger, who will replace all that lost leadership? That’s the most critical question in Steelers’ camp, but it won’t be answered until summer has faded and fall has arrived.

“It usually works itself out,” Butler said. “It’s got to work itself out, and we can’t tell somebody they’re going to be a leader. People are leaders or not. They’ve got to be good players and they’ve got to be guys who work hard all the time, and those type of guys people will follow. If what you’re saying is hollow, they’re not going to follow.

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“But I’m not worried about it. It will come. And if we’ve got to do it as coaches, we’ll do it as coaches. I think our guys will take care of it. They like winning, and they all understand what it means to be in this organization. You go into the office and look at those six Lombardi’s every day, and there’s nobody else that’s got those six Lombardi’s.” 

If there’s one consensus in camp, it’s that fifth-year defensive end Cam Heyward would be voted most likely to lead in 2015, given that he has developed a top-tier game (a career-best 7.5 sacks in 2014) that now supports his natural leadership skills. And it doesn’t hurt that the Steelers bestowed upon him a six-year, $59-million contract extension last month, thereby stamping him as a franchise cornerstone. Heyward now can walk the talk.

“Cam Heyward is emerging I think as that guy, and it’s more outward with Cam, it comes more natural with him,” Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said. “Now he’s playing good enough that he can justify getting vocal because he backs it up with his own play. But all this has to happen over time and it has to be organic. You can’t say, ‘Well, you’re the leader. They’ll tell you. The players will tell you who the leaders are.”

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Heyward certainly will. He openly embraces the challenge Tomlin put forth of restoring the excellence to the Steelers defense, and hasn’t shied away from the notion that Pittsburgh’s defense needs to match the performance of the Steelers’ prolific offense.

“We’ve always had guys in the past who have stepped up in leadership roles and I think we will again,” Heyward said. “The cool thing is we had guys lead for many years but never had to (talk much about it). Troy never had to lead publicly but when his number was called, he stepped up. He always lead. There’s going to be some new faces doing it, myself, Lawrence Timmons, William Gay, James Harrison. Those guys have been through some fires.

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“James Harrison doesn’t have to be [a big talker]. But when a guy of his magnitude and his legacy continues to play and continues to give 110 percent, you can only respect it. You can either roll with it, or you’re not on this team. A lot of young guys can learn from his example, and we’re happy to have it.”

Heyward showed me a little glimpse of his willingness to boldly lead in our lunchtime interview. When I lumped second-year inside linebacker Ryan Shazier into the discussion about Pittsburgh’s potential defensive leaders, he quickly corrected the record in regards to the team’s talented 2014 first-round pick, who missed seven games during his rookie season due to knee and ankle injuries.

“I wouldn’t even throw Shazier in there, he hasn’t played a full season yet,” Heyward said. “I want to see what he does through a whole season before we start thinking he’s a leader of this team. I think he’s got great talent, nothing against that. But it’s different playing a 16-game season, and we’ve got guys that have played in Super Bowls.”

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Just not as many as we’re used to seeing the Steelers defense field. At 37, Harrison is the elder statesman, and his re-signing with Pittsburgh in 2014 adds an important element of continuity and a touchstone representing the Steelers’ past defensive glories. But Harrison’s personality and temperament will never prompt him into taking a vocal leadership role.

“Even when James was in his prime and one of our captains, it was a reluctant role for him,’‘ Colbert said. “He was a captain but he didn’t go out to the coin toss because he just didn’t want to be out front. He’s a lot like Lawrence Timmons in that players know him, respect him and watch him work. They understand who he is, but it’s not his nature to be out front either.’’

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The leadership-by-committee approach on defense in Pittsburgh will also feature a more active role by Tomlin on that side of the ball. It is after all his area of expertise, and he has been working more closely with his club’s secondary members in camp at St. Vincent College, schooling them in the zone coverage schemes the Steelers will use more frequently this season. Under LeBeau, Pittsburgh favored more man coverage, but the past two seasons have seen the Steelers burned frequently by the big play in the passing game.

The plan in Pittsburgh this season is to restore a more aggressive approach in the defensive front seven, with a one-gap scheme on the defensive line that is aimed at utilizing the speed and disruptive, penetrating ability of defensive ends Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, which should free up the Steelers‘ corps of young, athletic and highly-drafted linebackers like Shazier, Timmons, Jarvis Jones and Bud Dupree.

“I feel like the emphasis is a lot better this season,” said Timmons, the ninth-year veteran who was the team’s first-round pick in 2007. “I feel like [Butler] is not going to put the corners on too much of an island and leave them stranded, because we have young corners this year. And I think our D-line is going to be awesome, with [Daniel] McCullers, Tuitt, Steve [McLendon] and Heyward. This is the strongest D-line we’ve had in a while. We’re using our strengths right now, a very strong D-line and a lot of athletic linebackers. You don’t really need DBs if you have your D-line cleaning everything up. I feel like we’re going to be great.”

That’s the goal this year in Pittsburgh. Restore the reputation of a defense that has slipped into mediocrity, on the strength of a new core of developing leaders. Great hasn’t been a word used to describe the Steelers defense in quite some time. In this season of transition, that would be the biggest change of all.