Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp Preview: Linebackers
The heart and soul of the Pittsburgh Steelers defense rests with the linebacking corps.
Steelers’ linebackers have made the Pro Bowl 23 of the past 31 seasons and will look to continue this successful run this season where they will once again have one of the most talented groups in the NFL.
Headlined by outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, the Steelers should have a dangerous pass rush.
While talented on the outside, there may be concerns on the inside where James Farrior is a year older and Lawrence Timmons struggles against the run.
Pittsburgh was proactive in planning for any potential issues in the middle with the offseason signing of Larry Foote.
With a healthy defensive line that has younger, more talented depth than years past, the linebackers should be able to roam free and make the plays necessary for a successful Pittsburgh defense.
Inside Linebackers – Starters
At the age of 35, Farrior will be entering his 14th season in the NFL.
Perennially the Steelers leading tackler, last season Farrior accumulated over 100 tackles for the fourth time in the past five seasons. Despite his success, he finally showed the signs of losing a step.
Farrior struggled in coverage, which had previously been one of his stronger points. A moment that stands out from last season was when he was beaten by Ray Rice of Baltimore, a play which ultimately led to a loss.
Timmons is still trying to develop into a complete player and could take that next step this season.
In his first year as a starter, Timmons had 78 tackles and seven sacks in only 13 games started. Pittsburgh will depend upon his playmaking ability if they wish to succeed.
Concerns heading into camp will be Farrior’s game speed. Is he able to play at a high level anymore?
As for Timmons, he needs to continue to improve his positioning, particularly when defending the run. Also, will Timmons be able to stay healthy for the entire season?
Inside Linebackers – Backups
If Pittsburgh has any injury or performance issues, they will have two dependable veterans to look to.
The return of Foote was a big addition for the Steelers.
Foote, while not the strongest or most athletic linebacker, is very experienced and successful in the Steelers defense. He will never ‘wow’ you with his play, but he is always in position which allows his teammates to freelance a little.
Pittsburgh will have the ability to use Foote off the bench in situational downs, whether it is as a run stopping specialist or to relieve Farrior to help keep his legs fresh throughout the season.
If Farrior or Timmons struggle in camp, Foote will be there to push them for a starting role.
Keyaron Fox, the Steelers special teams’ ace, is also capable of stepping into the starting lineup. In fact, some fans were calling for him to start at various points last season.
Fox did start three games for the Steelers, one of which he made his first interception of his career, which he returned 82 yards for a touchdown.
The presence of Foote and Fox make the inside linebacker position the deepest on the team. Watch out to see how the coaches use both players in substitution packages as well as their place on the depth chart.
Inside Linebackers – The Rest
Stevenson Sylvester, a fifth round selection, is a little undersized at only 231 pounds, but will have time to add bulk being fifth on the depth chart.
Though Sylvester is an intriguing prospect with starting potential several years from now, he will also have an uphill battle to make the team.
While Sylvester is capable of playing special teams as a rookie, the Steelers already have Fox to play that role. The team may not have enough room on the roster to keep a fifth inside linebacker.
But keep an eye on Sylvester as he could be a sleeper. If he can shine on the field, the coaching staff will find a roster spot for him.
Outside Linebackers – Starters
While there may be some questions at the inside linebacker position, the Steelers have to feel confident with their starters at outside linebacker.
After winning the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2008 after a 16 sack season, Harrison followed it up with 10 sacks last season.
Despite the drop off in numbers, Harrison was still a force to be reckoned with.
Harrison is 32, but is only entering his fourth season as starter, so he should be fresher than the average 32 year old Pro Bowl linebacker.
Harrison may actually be overshadowed this season by Woodley.
After a slow start to the 2009 season, Woodley exploded and was quite possibly the best player on the field throughout the second half of the season for the Steelers.
Woodley finished with 13.5 sacks and made his first, of what should be many, Pro Bowl appearance.
Expect Dick LeBeau to find new ways for these two to rush the quarterback as opposing teams will without a doubt key in on Pittsburgh’s premiere pass rushers.
Outside Linebackers – Backups
As great the starters are, that is how bad the depth as been at this position.
Pittsburgh looked to change that this season with their draft.
The Steelers came out with two outside linebacker prospects who are expected to be the top backups at the position this year.
Jason Worilds, second round selection from Virginia Tech, and Thaddeus Gibson, fourth round selection from Ohio State, will both be making transitions from college defensive end to NFL outside linebacker.
The transition to the Steelers defensive scheme will be a difficult one and neither is expected to make an impact on the base defense this year and will instead likely be used exclusively on special teams.
However, if either flashes potential as a pass rusher, they may see some time on the field in situational passing downs to give Harrison or Woodley a rest (though, it is unlikely the Steelers will want to take either Pro Bowler off the field).
Worilds is more of a speed rusher with a great first step while Gibson is more of a power guy with the potential to be a good run stopper.
It will be important to watch to see if these players are able to quickly make the transition to the 3-4 defense. If either or both struggle, the Steelers may be forced to keep another veteran outside linebacker for depth and/or use Timmons in case of injury.
Outside Linebackers – The Rest
Andre Frazier and Patrick Bailey are the biggest names of the rest of the linebackers.
Frazier has spent six seasons in the NFL between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati and has played mostly on special teams for the Steelers.
While Frazier has seen some spot duty in the defensive lineup, he has never taken the step necessary to be anything more than a player deep on the depth chart.
As a fifth linebacker, though, Frazier may be worth keeping due to his ability to step in if necessary on defense and his capable special teams play. He had a career high 18 special teams tackles last season.
The other option for the Steelers will be Bailey, who was the 2008 Steelers Rookie of the Year after playing in 12 games and finishing third on the team with 12 special teams tackles.
Bailey did not make as much of an impact on special teams in his second year, making only 11 tackles in 16 games.
As virtually a player who plays exclusively on special teams, Bailey may have a tough time making the roster over a player such as Frazier. But either player may be battling it out for the final roster spot.
Linebackers Lindsey Witten, Johnny Williams, and Renauld Williams are camp bodies who may have an opportunity to make the practice squad.