When it comes to developing linebackers, no team does it better than the Pittsburgh Steelers.
They consistently churn out quality linebackers, including the current group of starters consisting of James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons and Larry Foote.
Pittsburgh will have a chance to develop another quality linebacker this season as they face the tough task of finding a replacement for former defensive captain James Farrior.
While it is assumed that Foote will take over for Farrior, rookie Sean Spence will put some pressure on the veteran and could earn playing time earlier than expected.
At outside linebacker, Harrison and Woodley are the starters and the focus of camp will be to watch the development of the backups.
Here is a preview of the Steelers’ linebackers.
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.
Timmons was bounced between inside and outside linebacker last year and his play suffered. He should be more of a playmaker this year if he is able to stay inside. He is the Steelers' most athletic linebacker and will continue to play a major role dropping into coverage.
Foote is a steady veteran who will not wow you with his play, but he will be a steady presence in the middle. He has a deep understanding of the defense and is the best option to replace Farrior. However, he is no more than a two-down player.
Although he is a rookie, Spence will challenge Timmons as the most athletic linebacker on the roster. He has a high football IQ and that could help earn him a spot on the defense. He could be a valuable asset on passing downs early in the year and could potentially earn a starting role before the season is over. He will have to contribute on special teams.
Sylvester needs to take his development to the next level. He has been a very good special teams player, but needs to demonstrate he can be a viable backup at inside linebacker. This will be a big training camp for Sylvester.
Ivy impressed last preseason and may have to be even better this year. He has a lot of talent ahead of him so he will either have to outplay Sylvester or really make an impact on special teams if he wants to make the roster. However, he has the talent to be successful and does have a real shot to make the team.
Harrison had problems with his back last season that limited his effectiveness. He should be healthier this year, but it is clear that his body has experienced a lot of wear and tear and he is beginning to slow down. Harrison should still be able to put up double-digit sacks if he remains healthy for the full season.
There was no better defender in the league last season than Woodley in October. He put up seven-and-a-half sacks over a four-game span. However, a hamstring injury kept Woodley out of six of the final eight games of the year. A healthy Woodley this season means that the Steelers will have one of the best pass rushers in the league. Besides Troy Polamalu, Woodley may be the most dangerous defender on the Steelers.
Worilds did not look like a future starter last season. He is now in his third season and must begin to show that he can get to the quarterback on a more consistent basis. He needs to continue to develop dropping back into coverage and defending the run. Worilds should be the primary backup at outside linebacker.
A hamstring injury limited Carter as a rookie last season. He has potential as a pass rusher, but must continue to develop his all-around game. He should contribute on special teams.
Johnson signed with the Steelers as a free agent. He was a solid role player for the Cincinnati Bengals with experience as a starter and in the nickel. Johnson was a special teams captain in 2010 for the Bengals. He is a versatile backup and should have a good shot at making the team.
Hicks was not very productive in college at Florida. He played in 53 games and started 14 during his time there, but only had 117 tackles. He never had more than 38 tackles in a season. Hicks will not make the roster.
McFadden started four years at South Carolina State. He is a solid defender against the run, but struggles when dropping into coverage and lacks speed. He will not make the roster.
Baker was a contributor to an excellent defense at LSU last season. In four years he finished with 174 tackles, 15.5 tackles for a loss and nine-and-a-half sacks. However, he is undersized and will not make the roster.
Robinson is an outside linebacker prospect. He had 12 sacks in 2009, but combined for only 10 over the past two seasons. He will have to flash a ton of potential as a pass rusher to make the roster.
1. How much does Harrison have left?
Last year Harrison missed five games. This was the first significant action he has missed since becoming a starter in 2007. He is now 34 years old and while he has only five years as a starter, his body is beginning to wear out.
Harrison must prove that he can not only continue to be productive, but also stay healthy. As long as he can stay on the field, he should at least have one solid year left and should put up his usual numbers. However, if injuries have caught up to him, the Steelers may want to consider limiting his snaps throughout the season.
2. Can Spence start as a rookie?
Spence has already made an early impression, but now he needs to show that he can play in pads. That was not much of an issue in college, but he will be experiencing much tougher competition now.
I believe Spence will have a tough time beating Foote out for the starting job in camp. I do feel that he can earn time on passing downs early in the season and as he proves himself, his role will increase as the season progresses.
3. Will a backup pass rusher emerge?
Worilds is the key player here. He was drafted in the second round as a projected starter at outside linebacker. So far he has not shown that he can play at the level that the Steelers need him to be at. However, that does not mean he cannot put it all together this year.
Another player, such as a Carter, could stand out, but Worilds is the clear favorite. But all that matters is production and if a player can show they can rush the passer, the Steelers will find a spot for them.