Six years ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers had an unknown undrafted free agent take over for one of their great players, Joey Porter. That man—James Harrison.
Harrison didn’t just replace Porter, he established himself as one of the best and most feared defenders in the league. But even the greatest players can’t play forever and Harrison and the Steelers parted ways.
That leaves a gaping hole at right outside linebacker—one that will be difficult to replace.
Already struggling to pressure the quarterback, the Steelers are now without their top pass-rusher and are going to have to find a way to get to the quarterback if they want to improve their defense in 2013.
Next in line to start will be Jason Worilds.
When the Steelers took Worilds in the second round of the 2010 draft, the plan was to eventually have him take over for Harrison. But it became apparent that when the Steelers attempted to work out a deal with Harrison, that they may not have been confident with Worilds’ abilities to step into the starting role.
There’s not much of a choice now as it has become Worilds’ job to lose and head coach Mike Tomlin believes that he is more than ready for his opportunity to show everyone what he can do (via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette).
“I believe that Jason Worilds is chomping at the bit to prove he is capable of being that,” Tomlin said. “We will see what Worilds is capable of doing.”
In his limited time, Worilds actually has not been that bad of a pass-rusher.
Worilds has 10 sacks with only 10 starts and 42 games played in three seasons. He had five sacks while playing only 422 defensive snaps last season. By comparison, Harrison had six sacks in 811 snaps and LaMarr Woodley had four sacks in 621 snaps.
While these stats do not tell it all, they do demonstrate that Worilds can produce when provided with an opportunity.
The major issue with Worilds has been his consistency.
Over his brief career, Worilds has been slowed with numerous injuries that have kept him off the field and when he has been on the field, he has been invincible at times.
Though Worilds had five sacks last season, he couldn't get consistent pressure on the quarterback and is a liability against the run.
Even though Harrison’s play dropped off last season, he pressured the quarterback on a more consistent basis and is much better at stopping the run than Worilds.
With these weaknesses in his game, the Steelers will at least entertain the idea of a challenger for the starting role.
One option would be to move Lawrence Timmons to the outside and find a replacement for him in the middle.
Timmons was originally drafted to play right outside linebacker, but as we all saw that did not work out.
When playing on the outside, Timmons disappears from the game. He has shown very little as an edge pass rusher and is eaten up by tackles. He is also a non-factor against the run when playing on the outside.
So while some may suggest that the Steelers try to use Timmons’ athleticism on the outside, it just is not a logical answer. The defense would get weaker at two spots if they went in this direction.
Rather than get weaker at inside linebacker, the Steelers could find a challenger for Worilds in the draft.
Considering that the Steelers take their time developing outside linebacker prospects, any potential rookie starter at outside linebacker would have to be an absolutely special talent that they cannot keep off the field.
The problem is that this draft does not appear to have one of those types of linebackers.
Dion Jordan and Jarvis Jones are the only two prospects who could make an impact next season as a pass-rusher, but not enough to start.
Woodley has been the most recent outside linebacker to have success as a rookie, but even he couldn’t earn a starting job in his first season. It is just not how the Steelers operate on defense.
Instead, the Steelers will have to look at their other backup options to battle with Worilds for the job.
Chris Carter had a solid camp last season, but has been hampered by injuries and at this point has not shown more than Worilds.
Last season, in eight games played and three starts Carter recorded no sacks and finished with only eight tackles. Those numbers barely qualify as good for a backup let alone as the future starter at right outside linebacker.
That leaves Adrian Robinson as a potential sleeper to win the starting job.
Robinson—like Harrison—is an undersized undrafted free agent at 6’1” and 250 pounds. He didn’t have an opportunity to play on the defensive side of the ball as a rookie last season, but did showcase some potential in preseason.
With his most important job being to rush the passer, Robinson did just that and the coaching staff took notice (via The Patriot-News).
“He showed us that he could rush the passer with speed,” linebacker coach Keith Butler said. “He gave people problems that were a little bigger than him. He had a good spin move on the inside.”
Granted he was also playing against third-string players, but Robinson still made a positive impression and one that the coaching staff should remember this summer.
While Robinson may not replace Harrison this year, he should at least give the coaches something to think about rather than just allow them to hand the job to Worilds.
But until someone proves otherwise, Worilds will be the man to replace Harrison and though he has not shown signs of being a dominating defender just quite yet, Worilds has at least shown that he can handle himself when called upon.
It’s Worilds' time to shine and the Steelers can only hope he will continue the proud tradition at linebacker.