Contrary to what Pittsburgh columnist Gene Collier has suggested through the NFL Network , the Pittsburgh Steelers will win more than six games in 2010. They will, in fact, win enough games to make the playoffs.
Ah, yes, linebackers. Even the sound of the word brings warm memories to Steelers fans, and fearful shivers to opposing quarterbacks. The calling card of the black and gold and in the signature 3-4 system, they are what make a name for the entire defense.
Last season Pittsburgh backers were good, but outside of OLB Lamarr Woodley, none of the Steelers linebackers had outstanding seasons last year. ILB James Farrior seems to have lost a step in pass coverage, ILB Lawrence Timmons still has a thing or two to learn about playing in the NFL, and stud OLB James Harrison saw his sack production drop despite still making the Pro Bowl.
In the most recent issue of Steelers Digest, writer Jim Wexell (check out his writing, it's well worth it) wrote that part of the reason Harrison wasn't as dominant last season was that he and fellow Woodley were overworked.
According to Wexell's article, Harrison played 1,032 plays last season and Woodley played 1,030. The third OLB, Andre Frazier, played a total of three.
Steeler's General Manger Kevin Colbert did well this off-season to improve the unit's depth, and through the draft and free agency, has given Pittsburgh what might be its best line-backing corps since 1995 .
- Both starting OLBs are premier pass rushers who made the 2009 Pro Bowl.
- ILB James Farrior is a two-time Pro Bowler and the captain of the defense.
- Lawrence Timmons, the other starting ILB, and rookie Jason Worilds both have very good chances of making at least one Pro Bowl with the Steelers in their career.
- Both back up ILBs, Larry Foote and Keyaron Fox, have shown that they're worthy of a starting spot in the NFL.
That brings the total to seven potential-start worthy linebackers on the Pittsburgh roster, and that doesn't count the two other rookies who will be at training camp.
Just to clarify the rather brash prediction for second round draft pick Worilds—the guy is looking like a stud in the making. During the combine he showed great natural ability in pass coverage (some scouts said he looked like Woodley only with more fluid hips), he was a productive pass rusher at Virginia Tech, he has the same frame as Woodley, and based on interviews he seems to be an intelligent and driven individual.
If he proves to be all those things expect him to get some situational pass rushing looks this season and then be poised to replace Harrison in a few years.
So back to the big picture, the Steelers have more players worthy of starting at linebacker than possibly any two other teams combined. Not only are they deep but the starters should be better this year as well.
As stated before Harrison and Woodley should be in top condition with a little more time to rest. Plus last season teams focused on Harrison and successfully slowed him down. They didn't focus on Woodley however, and he recorded 13.5 sacks. Now teams need to pick their poison or try and play the "who is blitzing now" shell game. Either way, expect zone blitz master and defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau to be salivating.
In the middle, Farrior is slowing down but he now has two similar players behind him to give him a break. In his fourth year, Timmons should have full grasp of the defense after his first year as a starter last season.
Timmons struggled last year in coverage and wasn't as solid against the run as Foote, who he replaced. If those problems are related to inexperience or confusion in the defense then they should see large improvements in 2010. If it's an issue with strength or instincts, then Foote might have his starting spot back by year's end. Or at least maybe he should.
Alright so maybe between an aging Farrior and the small question of Timmons, there is a small worry for Steelers fans at starting ILB. But that is exactly where the brilliance of the unit lies. If either Timmon's or Farrior's play slips, Fox and Foote are more than capable of stepping in and holding things together.
Linebackers alone can't win a Super Bowl (just ask the 1980s Saints ). But in a 3-4 system they can sure help an awful lot. Pittsburgh has never won a Super Bowl without an elite group of backers, and this group easily falls within those lines.
Don't forget to read the rest of the story series.
Part 1: Quarterbacks
Part 2: Secondary
Part 4: Run Game (still to come)