How Jarvis Jones Can Avoid Being a Bust in Pittsburgh

Curt PopejoyContributor INovember 26, 2013

Sep 8, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Jarvis Jones (95) celebrates a tackle against the Tennessee Titans during the first half at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports
Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

When the Pittsburgh Steelers used their first-round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft on University of Georgia defensive end/linebeacker Jarvis Jones, the franchise and the fanbase felt like they were getting the type of play who could have an immediate and significant impact on a struggling defense from day one.

And why shouldn't they? In his final two seasons at Georgia, Jones accumulated 28 sacks and forced nine fumbles. Disruption was what his game was all about. The hope was that Jones would come in and assume the role of starting outside linebacker on the right side, opposite LaMarr Woodley.

Unfortunately, 11 games into the season and Jones has only been able to muster a single sack and 26 total tackles.

To put these numbers in some perspective, here are some of the other top rookies so far this season.

Rookie Sack Leaders
Ziggy AnsahDefensive EndDetroit Lions5.5
Chris JonesDefensive TackleNew England Patriots4.5
Sio MooreLinebackerOakland Raiders4.0
Barkevious MingoLinebackerCleveland Browns4.0
Datone JonesDefensive EndGreen Bay Packers3.0
Sheldon RichardsonDefensive EndNew York Jets3.0

In fact, beyond this list, four more rookies, including cornerback Logan Ryan from the New England Patriots have more sacks than Jones.

However, beyond simply sacks, a 3-4 outside linebacker is also asked to tackle. Here are the top tackling rookies in the league so far. By comparison, Jones has 26 tackles.

Rookie Tackle Leaders(minimum 50 tackles)
NamePositionTeamTotal Tackles
Kiko AlonsoLinebackerBuffalo Bills112
Paul WorrilowLinebackerAtlanta Falcons80
Alec OgletreeLinebackerSt. Louis Rams75
Tyrann MathieuSafetyArizona Cardinals64
John CyprienSafetyJacksonville Jaguars64
Sheldon RichardsonDefensive EndNew York Jets57
Joplu BartuLinebackerAtlanta Falcons56
Kenny VaccaroSafetyNew Orleans Saints54
Desmond TrufantCornerbackAtlanta Falcons52

So, what happened to that player in college that was so good? He's still there. Let's look at this highlight compilation from his time at Georgia.

That's certainly an exciting highlight reel and shows all of the very best things that Jones can do. So what's the problem? The problem is, it doesn't show him doing any of the things the Steelers are asking him to do this year.

The bulk of Jones' best plays in college came on broken plays. When the Georgia defense forced the quarterback to hold the football a little too long, Jones was able to use that motor to beat his man and chase down the quarterback. Or, on run plays he would pursue backside and blow up the back.

However, for the Steelers, they expect him to come off the edge, beat his man on-on-one, and get to the quarterback in a hurry. They also expect him to be able to set the edge against the run and if need be, beat a tight end to get to the ball carrier.

Aug 24, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Jarvis Jones (95) runs the ball after a turnover against the Kansas City Chief in the second half at Heinz Field. The play was overturned and the Chiefs retained possession. The Chiefs won
Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

On too many plays, Jones isn't using his hands well enough, and he's letting tackles get their hands on him where his size just will not allow him to win. When Jones does try to turn the corner, his leverage is rarely sound, and he gets much too far up the field before he can get around the tackle. He just runs himself out of plays.

Going to the analytics, the folks at Pro Football Focus (subscription required) don't paint a pretty picture for how Jones has played either. Here's how Jones has been ranked by the game.

Pro Football Focus

The good news is, there's still plenty of hope for Jones. However, the Steelers and Jones are going to have to be willing to make some changes.

Jones needs to beef up, getting more into the 255-260 pound range and be a power rush linebacker comparable to Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews. There was a time when the idea of a 245 pound rush linebacker might work, but you only have to go over the league leaders in sacks and you begin to understand that it just won't work in today's NFL.

And before anyone mentions him, Indianapolis Colts linebacker Robert Mathis is the exception that proves the rule. He is really the only undersized pass-rush specialist in the league who is having a big year.

Perhaps the greatest impact of Jones' struggles this year will be financial. Jason Worilds has had a great season, and as an upcoming free agent, the Steelers will be forced to make a choice. Sign Worilds to a new, and likely expensive contract on the assumption Jones won't be ready in 2014, or let Worilds walk, and hope Jones can improve enough to be an effective full-time starter.

Pre-draft, I said that Jones was like safety Troy Polamalu at linebacker. He needs to be allowed to freelance and that means the rest of the team has to be ready to pick them up when they guess wrong.  The Steelers want to put Jones in a much more defined role than he was ever in at Georgia, so there is no certainty if it's going to work.