LATROBE, Pa. – The Pittsburgh Steelers' defense knew it was getting old. But this old? Not yet.
Due to a computer error, the Steelers' media guide bumps up a number of players' ages by four years each. James Farrior is listed at 39, Aaron Smith at 38, James Harrison at 36, Larry Foote and Ryan Clark at 34, Troy Polamalu at 33.
Losing fourth-quarter leads five times in the same season, as the Steelers did last season while going 9-7 and missing the playoffs, is enough to age any defense. Only not quite this much.
Dick LeBeau, who turns 73 next month, is the NFL's oldest coordinator, so it's probably good that database error didn't find its way to his biography. A scratch golfer who can shoot his age on the right course, LeBeau doesn't care much when his age his mentioned. When someone calls his defense too old, however, it does upset him.
Good thing he hasn't glanced at page 332 of the Steelers' press guide, which lists the team roster and all those errant ages.
LeBeau remembers hearing the same they're-too-old criticism two years ago, when the Steelers' defense — tackling one of the toughest schedules for a Super Bowl winner — put together the NFL's best season statistically in 30 years, leading the league in nearly every major category. Now he's hearing it again, even though the Steelers' finished No. 5 defensively last year during an admittedly disappointing season.
Getting old? To LeBeau, coaching players as enthusiastic and productive as these Steelers can only make one feel young.
"I love what I do and I love the people that I do it with," said LeBeau, who will be cheered on by his players when he is inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, on Saturday. "In order for me to coach, somebody has to want me to coach, and that's what I have right now."
LeBeau considers himself fortunate that he's still coaching six of the 11 starters from the Steelers' Super Bowl victory over Seattle five years ago. To him, having veteran players who know his system and are capable of performing in it well into their 30s is an asset, not a liability.
"I don't mind being old," Smith said. "Being old in this business can be a good thing, I guess."
While seven of the 11 starters 30 or older, and only Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley are 25 or younger, Pittsburgh's defense has remained one of the NFL's best despite playing most of last season without the injured Polamalu and Smith. Polamalu is nearly unrivaled at safety for his game-changing ability, while his teammates call Smith the key to the Steelers' run defense.
"With those two guys healthy now, that makes our defense 20-30 percent better than what we normally were last year," Harrison said. "With Troy in there, especially, a quarterback really has to account for him. With Aaron, it usually takes two people to hold him off."
The Steelers also brought back Bryant McFadden to play cornerback after one season in Arizona and Larry Foote to compete at inside linebacker following a dissatisfying season in Detroit, where he signed so he could remain a starter.
"They certainly could be starters, but at the very least they will give us depth and make the guys around them play better," Harrison said.
The Steelers need that defense to play at a 2008 level early in the season, when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will be suspended and fill-in Byron Leftwich will be running an offense that might be not as productive as it likely will be when Roethlisberger returns.
Of course, trying to prop up the offense is an age-old problem for many defenses.
"Age is just a number," Farrior said.