When the Steelers play the Jets this week, the Jets will be without a key defensive player, Darrelle Revis, but the Steelers will also be without a key defensive player and maybe even two. James Harrison, who was supposed to play last week, will miss his 2nd straight week after having supposedly minor knee surgery last month. Now reports say that he might not play at all until after the Steelers’ week 4 bye. In his absence, 2011 5th round pick Chris Carter played last week and didn’t do much. He’ll start again and split snaps with Jason Worilds, another young pass rusher.
Polamalu’s injury is more serious because of what he means to that defense. The Steelers have a great defense, but no player is more important to their defense than him. Over the last 3 years, when he plays, the Steelers are 27-8 and allow 14.4 points per game and without him, they’re 6-7 and allow 21.5 points per game. That’s not all him, but a lot of that is him. He’s their only irreplaceable defensive player and his mere presence can disrupt passing plays and running plays.
I made the argument for an improved Steeler defense before the season, improved even off their league leading scoring defense last year. I noted that they had just 15 turnovers last year and that since 2002, 38 teams have had 20 or fewer takeaways in a season. Those teams had, on average, 7.53 more takeaways and won 1.41 more games the following season.
They also had several key injuries on defense last year. Both outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley missed time, which forced Jason Worilds to step into the starting lineup and Lawrence Timmons to move from inside linebacker to outside linebacker. Worilds did fine, though he certainly wasn’t as good as Woodley or Harrison would have been, but Timmons was awful. Clearly not a natural pass rusher, he had just 2 quarterback hits and 1 quarterback pressure on 114 pass rush snaps in 4 starts, a pathetic 2.6% rate. Timmons was ProFootballFocus’ highest rated middle linebacker in 2010, so him being inside for all 16 games will definitely help their defense. Even if it wasn’t improved, they looked poised for their SEVENTH top-3 scoring defense since 2004.
However, the Steelers could have all that derailed if their most important and irreplaceable defensive player misses several games with injury or starts to show his age at all at age 31. He didn’t show his age in the opener, but he’s very likely to miss at least one game, as he didn’t practice all week with a calf problem. The last time the Steelers missed the playoffs and didn’t have a top-3 scoring defense was in 2009, when Polamalu missed 11 games.
It’s not a huge concern yet because it’s only one game so far and they should be able to beat the Jets, who still have an inconsistent quarterback and whose “offensive explosion” last week, was a result of the Bills’ offense giving them great field position all night, a pick six, a punt return touchdown, and the Bills’ defense quitting after going down big early. The Jets are also hurt by the injury to top cornerback Darrelle Revis, who might be as irreplaceable to them as Polamalu is to the Steelers. The situation is definitely one to monitor going forward past this week, however.