When it comes to talent, the Pittsburgh Steelers rarely have an issue at linebacker, but that may not be the case this season.
Given the lack of depth, the Steelers may have more questions than answers when it comes to the linebacker position. The key to their success will start with a pair of 2007 draft picks.
Over the past two seasons, the Steelers lost their defensive leader—James Farrior—and most feared defender—James Harrison. That firmly puts Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley in charge of the linebackers.
They will be on the field with the aging Larry Foote and inexperienced Jason Worilds—not exactly the most fearsome group the Steelers have ever trotted onto the field.
But help is on the way as a couple of talented linebackers were selected in the draft.
Jarvis Jones projects to be the future starter at right outside linebacker, while Vince Williams could eventually develop into a solid two-down inside linebacker.
But while they have upside, there is still plenty of room for these players to develop. It is essential that they do, as the Steelers need to boost their depth at both positions.
As I continue my training camp preview, I will examine the Pittsburgh Steelers’ linebackers.
The headliner at the inside linebacker position is without a doubt Lawrence Timmons.
With the exception of Ryan Clark—maybe—Timmons was the best defender for the Steelers last season. He finished the season with 106 tackles, six sacks, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, three interceptions and five passes defended.
Few linebackers in the league can say they are as well-rounded as Timmons. But as talented as he is, he has yet to make a Pro Bowl, and he doesn’t call the plays for the defense.
As a whole, he has been inconsistent over the course of his career, though his production has been significantly better over the last three seasons.
But these factors have not stopped defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau from asking a lot of Timmons. He is the team’s most athletic linebacker and is responsible for dropping into coverage, and they have had him shift to the outside due to injuries. Expect even more this season.
Timmons knows that more will be expected of him, considering all of the losses the Steelers have suffered on the defensive side of the ball in recent years. He should be up to the task.
Expect LeBeau to continue to provide Timmons with the freedom to use his athleticism to make plays all over the field.
Timmons will have that freedom because of the presence of Larry Foote.
Foote has never been the fastest or strongest player on the field, but he knows where he is supposed to be and almost always makes the play.
Last season was one of his best with a career-high 113 tackles and four sacks. However, he is a two-down linebacker and is limited against the faster offensive weapons that he must defend.
While we all know what we are getting with the starters, there is a bit of mystery surrounding the backups.
Sean Spence was supposed to be Foote’s replacement, but a devastating injury has his career in question. Though, his return varies depending on who you ask.
Spence told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he expects to play this year, and Mike Tomlin believes he will make a full recovery. However, linebackers coach Keith Butler said that it would be “miraculous” if he played this season.
Assuming Spence is out, Stevenson Sylvester is a familiar name that will have a shot at earning the top backup spot.
Sylvester made a name for himself as a rookie when he was a star on special teams. The hot start to his career didn’t last as he began to lose much of that luster.
His play on special teams declined, and he never established himself as a viable backup on defense. He got time at outside linebacker during OTAs and will have to demonstrate his versatility as this is his last chance to make an impression on the coaching staff.
Meanwhile, Marshall McFadden could be a surprise player to keep an eye on.
McFadden is a physical specimen at 6’1” and 233 pounds. He has decent athleticism, and he told Teresa Varley of Steelers.com that he has “a better understanding” of the defensive system with a year of experience under his belt.
He will be competing with sixth-round draft pick Vince Williams, who projects as a two-down linebacker.
Williams is a high-character player who could be a valuable addition to the special teams as a rookie. Considering the Steelers could use a boost to their coverage units, this could go a long way to him making the final roster.
If I had to guess, the Steelers will decide between McFadden and Sylvester as the primary backup given their knowledge of the defense. The better special teams player between these two and Williams should have the edge at making the team.
The Steelers signed Brian Rolle from the Philadelphia Eagles this offseason. He started 13 games in 2011 and finished the year with 54 tackles and one sack, but only played in four games last season. He is also undersized, standing at 5’10”.
Let’s just get this out of the way. Will LaMarr Woodley be in shape?
The reports have been positive so far.
Keith Butler told Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that he is happy with Woodley’s progress so far.
Woodley’s performance is going to be huge this year given the loss of James Harrison. The Steelers need production from their outside linebackers, and it just hasn’t been there over the last two seasons.
Last year, the combined efforts of the outside linebackers equaled some of the better pass-rushers in the league. That is not good enough, and they will be entering the season with an unproven right outside linebacker.
Jason Worilds has patiently waited for three years, and it is finally his turn to start. He won’t get a free pass, as first-round draft pick Jarvis Jones will at least give him something to think about.
In three years, Worilds has played in 42 games—starting 10 of them—and has 10 sacks. Five of these came last season when he replaced Harrison in the starting lineup for three games.
As I have been hitting on all offseason, Worilds has not demonstrated a diverse set of pass-rushing skills and lacks in other areas as a well, including run defense and dropping into coverage.
However, it is his knowledge of the defense that will give him the starting nod over Jones. He is also capable of putting up double-digit sacks over the course of a full season. However, you won’t mistake him for Harrison when it comes to all-around production, and even he admits that, via the Pittsburgh-Post-Gazette:
"I'm not James Harrison," Worilds protested. "When Jason Worilds steps on the field, anyone who expects James Harrison is fooling themselves."
A player who could eventually develop into a Harrison-like player is Jones.
Jones was an incredible playmaker at Georgia and was a star last season, leading the nation with 14.5 sacks, 24.5 tackles for a loss and seven forced fumbles.
Do not expect this type of production from Jones as a rookie. He’ll be lucky to see the playing field early in the season let alone be one of the top pass-rushers in the league.
The Steelers take their time developing linebackers and expect them to know the defense inside and out before they trust them on the field full-time.
That does not mean he won’t play at all. I believe the coaches will use Jones similar to how they used Woodley during his rookie year.
Woodley collected four sacks that year and appeared to be good enough to start, but the coaches stuck with the veteran Clark Haggans. In my mind, it would take a pretty bad failure by Worilds for Jones to start, or for Jones to be completely unstoppable in the preseason.
Instead, watch how the coaches rotate Jones into the lineup and if they use him as a situational pass-rusher on throwing downs. This is where he can make his biggest impact.
Chris Carter is next in line, and he has a lot to prove.
Injuries have held him back so far, but the speed rusher has yet to make an impact when given the opportunity. In three starts last season, Carter logged two solo tackles, four assists and no sacks.
The bigger issue for Carter is that he does not play well on special teams. With Sylvester playing inside and outside linebacker and the influx of rookies who can play special teams, Carter has a lot of obstacles to overcome.
A potential surprise obstacle could be Adrian Robinson.
Robinson is one of my favorite “sleepers” who could develop into a quality backup or starter down the line. He flashed the ability to get to the quarterback last season, and that is what you like to see from outside linebacker prospects.
The coaching staff was impressed enough with Robinson that he made the 2012 team and contributed on special teams. He will have to grow in this area and show that he can do more than rush the quarterback if he wants to make the team again.
Given the talent ahead of them, Alan Baxter and Terence Garvin are long shots. Neither particularly stands out, but Baxter was fairly productive in college and had 15 sacks in his two seasons starting at defensive end for Northern Illinois.
Key Questions (and Answers)
Will LaMarr Woodley be in shape?
I am not going to spend much time on this one. Woodley will be in shape, and this will go a long way to keeping him on the field. When healthy, he has shown that he is one of the best pass-rushers in the league. He realizes that he needs to raise his level of play now that Harrison is gone, and I believe he is up to the task.
Is this the year Lawrence Timmons makes the Pro Bowl?
I have been very critical of Timmons over the years. It all goes back to the day he was drafted when I didn’t believe he was a fit for the defense. In reality, he wasn’t. He was supposed to play outside linebacker. They moved him to the inside, and it took him years to develop.
However, he has shown signs of being a very good to great player over the last three seasons with last year being his most consistent. Timmons is now a veteran on the defense, and he has indicated that he is ready to take that next step as a leader. He will be a player LeBeau can depend on and will be one of the top playmakers on this defense.
Is Jason Worilds ready for the starting job?
This is a tough one. He is ready for the job in the aspect that he knows the defense and will be fairly productive. However, I do not expect him to be a dynamic player at outside linebacker, wreaking havoc on offenses.
Instead, he will be a steady presence who will disappear at times, but will be good enough to get the job done. That will not stop fans from calling for Jones to start at some point this year.
How much playing time with Jarvis Jones get?
Do not expect Jones to get a lot of playing time right away. The coaches will bring him along slowly, but at some point, he should earn a role as a third-down pass-rusher. It will all depend on how he performs in camp.
An interesting thing to watch will be how he matches up against the tackles. The Steelers lack depth here, and if he can’t get the upper hand against the backups, there will be some cause for concern.
How will the Steelers fill out the depth chart?
Woodley, Timmons, Foote, Worilds and Jones are locks for the team. I believe that Spence will begin the year on the PUP, taking him out of the equation. As long as Sylvester can play inside and outside, he makes the team.
I also keep Robinson at outside linebacker because I like his potential as a pass-rusher. On the inside, I go young and keep McFadden and Williams. Here you have a physical presence and a couple of guys who can hopefully boost the special teams.