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Pittsburgh had a good, but not great defense last season. Why? The lack of sacks and turnovers.
In 2011, the Steelers only had 35 sacks and generated 15 turnovers, far below the 2010 totals of 48 sacks and 35 turnovers.
So why the drastic decrease in production? The answer is quite simple—the absence of Harrison and Woodley.
The two linebackers combined for 18 sacks, but only started a combined 21 games. Their replacements simply were not good enough.
Pittsburgh's defense should be more productive this season, assuming Harrison and Woodley can stay healthy. Expect each player to achieve at least 10 sacks.
But the Steelers still need to find a viable backup at the position as well as an eventual replacement for Harrison.
They tried Timmons at outside linebacker last year and that did not work out. Though Timmons is a great athlete, he is not an outside linebacker in Pittsburgh’s defense and needs to stay on the inside.
Jason Worilds started seven games at outside linebacker and was not particularly effective.
Worilds was not a disruptive force when rushing the quarterback and finished with only three sacks. At times he was also a liability in defending the run and he must improve this area of his game.
Chris Carter is another young option, but he has a lot to prove after missing eight games last season with a hamstring injury.
However, when the biggest issue at outside linebacker is with the backups behind two Pro Bowlers, things are going pretty well.
The inside linebacker position will be a little more interesting.
Foote is scheduled to start and may face some competition from third-round draft choice Sean Spence.
Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette tweeted that Spence was the most impressive player on the first day of rookie camp and Jim Wexell of Steel City Insider said that the defensive coaches were impressed with how Spence was "a true student of the game."
Linebacker coach Keith Butler believes that Spence may even contribute this season. Via Steeler City Insider:
“He may not start, but he’s probably going to get some playing time, like Lawrence did and like LaMarr [Woodley] did. They got playing time as rookies, but weren’t starters.”
With Spence on the rise, Stevenson Sylvester is on the fall.
Sylvester was behind Farrior and Foote last season and failed to make an impression when he had an opportunity to start against the New England Patriots.
Now Sylvester may find himself behind Foote and Spence. But while that puts Sylvester in a precarious position, the coaching staff has to be pleased that two young, athletic linebackers will be vying for playing time.
But it may not be limited to just these two players.
Mortty Ivy had a very good preseason last year and made a push to make the final roster.
While Ivy did not make the final cuts, he could find his way onto the roster as a backup linebacker this year if he can outplay Sylvester or shine on special teams.
If nothing else, the quality depth at inside linebacker will provide an exciting camp competition to keep your eye on.