Steelers defensive stars prepping for final stand
Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley is recovering from a hamstring injury. He is expected to play in Sunday's wild card playoff game against the Denver Broncos. (AP photo)
Just in case some of his younger teammates don't understand what's at stake over the next month, the linebacker — who turns 37 on Friday — decided it was time for his colorful annual reminder.
"Don't (expletive) mess with my money," Farrior wrote, then outlined the bonus each player receives depending on how far his team goes in the playoffs, including the $88,000 that comes with getting to the Super Bowl.
Posting the note has become routine for Farrior at the start of each playoff run, though this message was a little more impassioned than most.
The defending AFC champions begin their quest for a seventh Lombardi trophy on Sunday at Denver in the wild card round, perhaps the last time the core group of the league's top-ranked defense will make a playoff push together.
Farrior is in his 15th season. Linebackers James Harrison and Larry Foote, defensive linemen Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel and defensive backs Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark and Bryant McFadden are all in their 30s and closer to the end of their careers than the beginning.
They've been the backbone of a decade-long run that rivals the four championships the franchise captured in the 1970s, winning two titles and narrowly missing a third in a 31-25 loss to Green Bay in last year's Super Bowl.
And they all understand their window for getting another ring is closing quickly. For some, it maybe already has.
"It has to come to an end soon," said defensive end Aaron Smith, who is out for the year with a herniated disc and unsure whether he'll return for a 14th season next fall. "We're all getting older. We can't play forever although we'd like to."
The signs of age are starting to show. Harrison missed a month in the middle of the season with a fractured right orbital bone and missed practice on Thursday due to a problematic toe injury. So did Keisel, who is nursing a strained groin and Polamalu, who is dealing with a tender calf.
All three are expected to play against the Broncos (8-8), though the defense will be without Clark, who was taken out of the lineup by coach Mike Tomlin because of a sickle-cell trait that becomes aggravated when playing at altitude.
It's been that way most of the season for the Steelers, who finished No. 1 in the league yards allowed, points allowed and pass defense despite spending most of the year going with a patchwork lineup.
Harrison and LaMarr Woodley have only played alongside each other for a quarter since Oct. 2, when Harrison injured his eye in a loss at Houston. He returned a month later, a week after Woodley went down with a strained left hamstring that's dogged him ever since.
They should be reunited in Denver, turning the huddle into a defensive version of "Ocean's Eleven," with the gang reunited for one more big score.
"I hope it's going to be like that," Farrior said. "Having those two guys out there definitely gives us a boost of confidence. Those guys, when they're healthy they're tough to stop."
Yet the Steelers have thrived even without their two Pro Bowlers. Lawrence Timmons has filled in the gaps, playing all four linebacker positions at some point. Jason Worilds and Stevenson Sylvester have grown up on the job while defensive ends Ziggy Hood and Cam Heyward have become solid contributors following season-ending injuries to Smith and Chris Hoke.
The changing of the guard is coming soon. Really soon.
"Those (young) guys have really stepped up because they've been in a lot of tough situations and they've rose to the occasion most of the time," Farrior said. "I'm really proud of those guys, how they managed being a young NFL player, they definitely stepped up to the plate."
Hall of Fame defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau tries not to think of things in terms of the big picture. There is only Sunday and — hopefully — the week after that. He's not sure there's a higher sense of urgency among the veterans this year than any other year. It's really not for him to say.
"I'll leave that to the poets and the philosophers," LeBeau said. "We don't talk about it. We don't think about it. We go with what we got. That's one of the reasons we can handle adversity. We do a good job of taking a punch right in the jaw and coming back and playing the next down."
It's something the defense has done this season, though with a little less flash than usual. While Pittsburgh's yardage numbers were outstanding, the Steelers finished last in the league in takeaways.
Youth at certain positions due to injuries may have something to do it, though Farrior has another theory.
"I always blame it on our outside backers, LaMarr and Harrison," Farrior said. "When they're not out there together they're not wreaking havoc."
They'll be flanked opposite each other on Sunday, though who knows how much longer it will last. Harrison turns 34 in the offseason and has a balky back that requires regular acupuncture treatment. He continues to play with singular tenacity yet also acknowledges the pain never really goes away.
It's what Smith is wrestling with as he weighs whether to go through rehab and give it another shot next season. Yet, like Farrior, he remains confident the Steelers will be fine long after they've gone.
"It's more than just one guy," Smith said. "That's part of what makes the defense so great, it's not just one guy. It's not built around one player and one technique. It's the entire team. It's what we believe in. Everybody gets a piece of it."