When the Pittsburgh Steelers parted ways with James Harrison, they knew they were losing one of the best playmakers at linebacker in the league. No wonder they were so excited to select college football’s best playmaker—Jarvis Jones—with their first-round draft pick.
After a poor pro day, there were some red flags concerning Jones’ workout numbers, but it was still hard to ignore his production at the college level and potential in the pros.
"He definitely is one of the guys I talked about the other day as being a special player in this draft," general manager Kevin Colbert said, via Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "He's a solid kid, a great player. He was dominant at a major college. He plays the run, chases the ball and, most important, he gets after the passer.”
Jones has a long way to go before he develops into that type of player in the NFL, but he is getting valuable experience already as a rookie. This should only benefit him as he will likely step into a starting role in 2014.
Before looking ahead as to how Jones fits into the Steelers future plans, let’s evaluate his rookie season.
Jones has had his struggles this year, as described by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Dejan Kovacevic, but he has battled through these problems, and this should only benefit him and the team heading into next season.
The sheer fact that Jones played as many snaps as he has is an accomplishment in itself. He has had the opportunity to learn on the job and showcase some skills that he is good at.
As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ray Fittipaldo points out, it’s rare for a defender to play a significant role in Dick LeBeau’s complex defense.
Why does it take so long? As LeBeau told Fittipado, it is all about comfort level
The formula for us has been to get these guys and let them get assimilated into the defense and watch the veterans run it. Invariably, there have been situations where they've had to play and they've always done a pretty good job as Jarvis has done. If I had my choice I'd let him learn from the veterans and let them step into it as they become real comfortable in the defense.
Jones did enough early on to enter the starting lineup by Week 2 and would start four games before being demoted by Mike Tomlin because of not enough “detailed work” as reported by Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Even with the demotion, Jones has had plenty of snaps this season. According to Football Outsiders, Jones has played in 61 percent of the defensive snap counts this year. This experience should prove to be valuable moving forward. Players can learn by studying the game plan and watching film, but that cannot match getting in-game reps.
One of the most challenging aspects for a rookie outside linebacker in the Steelers scheme is dropping into coverage. Jones has not looked uncomfortable doing so.
Jones immediately identified the play as a pass and dropped into coverage. Forte released out into the flat prompting to which Jones reacted to hold him to a four-yard gain.
This type of read-and-react will be what the Steelers need to get out of Jones as he continues to develop in coverage. He has already demonstrated the instincts to be solid in coverage, and he should only be better next season.
Stopping the run is a priority for Dick LeBeau’s defense, so here is a bit of a deeper look at what Jones has done against the run this season.
Jones has shown to be a capable defender against the run, particularly early in the season.
In the opening game of the season against the Tennessee Titans, Jones made his first play behind the line when he shot between the left tackle and tight end to stop Chris Johnson.
As Jones approached Johnson, he squared his shoulders and lined him up for the textbook tackle for a three-yard loss.
Jones had two tackles for a loss in the opening week but none after that point. Part of the reason was he had problems setting the edge, which was something James Harrison did so well.
Harrison was also excellent in backside pursuit, which Jones demonstrated in Week 2 against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Jones showed his quick burst off the snap and came around the backside to hit BenJarvus Green-Ellis four yards behind the line.
Green-Ellis would move forward to the line of scrimmage, but the play could have gone for positive yardage if not for Jones’ presence.
However, Jones has had his problems when engaged with blockers. For instance, against the Oakland Raiders, he was washed out of the play by the tight end. This opened up a huge hole for Darren McFadden.
Jones would spin off the block and pursue McFadden to eventually make the stop after a 19-yard gain.
As Jones moves into his first offseason, he will need to get physically stronger if he wants to contain the edge better and fight off blocks to make plays. The Steelers will need him to improve if they want to rank higher than 22nd in the league against the run next season.
It has not been a banner year in terms of rushing the quarterback for Jones. He only has one sack and only six hurries, according to Sporting Charts.
One issue right now is Jones’ lack of strength. Against the New England Patriots, he was completely engulfed by tackle Nate Solder.
With more than enough time to set his feet, Tom Brady was able to air a deep ball to Aaron Dobson for an 81-yard touchdown pass. Jones' lack of strength was evident in one-on-one matchups with tackles as well as when he blitzed up the interior.
Jones also struggled with his hand placement and shoulder dip and often took himself out of the play when rushing the outside.
Against the Minnesota Vikings, Jones was unable to gain leverage on this play and lost his balance when coming around the outside. The tackle was easily able to push him wide of the quarterback to take him out of the play.
In Week 10 against the Buffalo Bills, Jones finally recorded the first sack of his career. He came off the edge.
Jones came in free and avoided a low-block attempt from running back C.J. Spiller on his way to sacking EJ Manuel.
Clearly this area of his game has been the biggest disappointment for Jones, but you can tell the instincts are there. The problem is you do not get many free plays in the NFL like you do in college, so he will have to develop a set of pass-rushing moves if he wants to be a consistent threat from the team’s premiere pass-rushing position.
Even though the stat sheet does always show it, Jones has forced the issue on a couple of plays including an interception against the New York Jets.
Jones came off the right end and plowed right through the running back into the chest of Jets quarterback Geno Smith. His pass fluttered right into the arms of Lawrence Timmons who made the interception to help seal the victory.
In addition to getting pressure on the quarterback, Jones has been credited with three passes defended this season, including two against the Detroit Lions.
On this particularly play, Jones started rushing from the outside but turned it back in which placed him right in Matthew Stafford’s passing lane.
Jones was immediately looking for the ball so that could make a play on it. It is this type of awareness that makes him a threat to create turnovers and someone to be excited about for the future.
Even though Jones has struggled this year and hasn’t been particularly productive, he figures to be a major part of Pittsburgh’s defense next season.
Which pair of outside linebackers do you want to see starting in 2014?
Unlike most outside linebackers in the Steelers system, Jones did not have the luxury of developing behind the starters for a year or two before being thrown into the fire.
It took the great James Harrison years to make a name for himself. After over three seasons, Jason Worilds is finally breaking through. Jones' time will come, it will just be a matter of when.
For the Steelers, they will need to see an increase in production as soon as next season.
Dejan Kovacevic is one of many in a building contingent of writers, analysts and fans who believe the Steelers should release LaMarr Woodley after the season and re-sign Jason Worilds.
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As tough as it may be to absorb the cap hit, it is a move the Steelers need to make to get younger and hungrier on defense.
The Steelers must enter the 2014 season with Worilds and Jones starting at outside linebacker. There is a reason they invested high draft picks on these guys, and it is time to roll with them.
Jones hasn’t even come close to realizing his potential this season, but his experience has been beyond valuable in his developmental process.
An offseason to get stronger and gain a better understanding of the defense compounded with the on-field experience this season will go a long way in preparing Jones for 2014 and beyond as he attempts to become the next great linebacker in the Steelers defense.