There is no comparison whether I am biased or otherwise when it comes to linebackers. There is no team, I repeat, “no team,” in the National Football League with a richer history of great linebackers than the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Lambert, Ham, Russell, Lloyd, Kirkland, Greene (Kevin), Harrison, Woodley, Farrior, and so on… I could certainly list more but you know them anyway right? In our continuing series here at steeleraddicts.com, we turn our defensive focus to the linebackers who are the focal point of the Dick LeBeau 3-4 defense.
James Harrison – I’ve read recently where some are predicting this could be Harrison’s last year in Pittsburgh whether that is related to his large contract or the fact he appears to be wearing down. This is what I know with James Harrison. If he can play, he will and will give it everything he has and can still be better than most of the outside backers in this league. With that said, Harrison is no spring chicken either and his health will be of paramount concern for the team in 2012.
You could argue that because Harrison toiled in mediocrity early in his career that he is a ‘young’ 34 years of age and I would understand that argument but this guy is a throwback. A warrior-type who goes hard every play and I believe that has taken a toll on him. I do however feel this will be his last big year and by that I mean I still think he gets to the 10-sack total but I just don’t know how much his body will be able to take at this point.
LaMarr Woodley – The argument can certainly be made that every player on the Steelers’ defense needs have ‘their best year’ in 2012. I mentioned this to a degree with Ike Taylor, but Woodley is the guy I am counting on to produce this season.
After signing a huge contract in the off-season last year, Woodley was off to a nice start before blowing out his hamstring against the Patriots and then missed several games. Let’s be honest, even when he played following the injury he was less than 100%. Way less in my opinion. With his counterpart Harrison aging, the pressure falls to Woodley and I mean that literally.
Woodley must be the man to get pressure on the quarterback consistently and he must find ways other than the a straight bull rush to do it. He will face more double teams than Harrison will and he and LeBeau must establish ways of countering that. Woodley has already cemented himself in Steelers’ lore, but he can truly establish himself as one of the greats with a monster season in 2012.
Jason Worilds/Stevenson Sylvester – I put these two guys together because quite frankly they need to make it now or never. Besides the fact that they both entered the NFL in the same year, the both share a heavy burden this year as they must step up like never before.
For Worilds, he saw more action last season with the injury to Woodley and quite frankly he acquitted himself nicely at times but must improve his rush technique in order to get to the quarterback. He often reminded me of Clark Kent, showing up just a second too late to see what happened. Unfortunately, Worilds was not playing the part of Superman. He was just simply a second too late. This has to change and the opportunities will be there in the pre-season.
“Sly” is in a similar spot in terms of having to make the most of his opportunities but he also has the added pressure of rookie Sean Spence on his heels. With James Farrior gone, the Steelers plan to go with veteran Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons at the inside backers.
Already a really good special teams’ player, Sly must now make the translation to defense. His aggressiveness is not an issue nor is his ability, but rather he must learn to throttle down and not overrun plays. In the 3-4 defense, this creates gaps that backs can get through for big gains and Sylvester has to improve on this now.
Lawrence Timmons – So you recall earlier in this piece when I said there was pressure on Woodley? Ya well, there is pressure on this guy also to have a huge year. Last season, I predicted Lawrence Timmons would make a run at the defenisve player of the year award in the NFL. I honestly believed he was ready to make that jump.
To be very fair to Timmons, the guy was put in some difficult spots due to injury as he frequently had to play outside. For a guy that enjoys going sideline-to-sideline, playing on one side is tough and I believe that impacted his numbers. Timmons needs guys like Worilds to step up on the outside so he can remain where he is at his best which is on the inside.
Larry Foote – Do not underestimate Larry Foote. A lot of people in the Steelers’ Nation don’t see the value and importance of a guy like Foote on our defense. Is he going to be the same type of leader like James Farrior? No he isn’t, but his skill set will provide Dick LeBeau with the opportunity to once again re-introduce the famed ‘X-stunt’ which was M.I.A. last season.
Foote will not be flashy, but he can still make plays and if Sean Spence can pick up the LeBeau defense he may be able to spell Foote keeping him fresher for longer stretches of the game. Larry Foote will play his ass of in 2012 I can guarantee that. This is his moment to lead the Steelers’ defense and while he won’t be flashy, he’ll be productive and most importantly, he’ll get people where they are supposed to be.
Sean Spence – He’s a tackling machine. He’a gym rat. He watches tons of video of himself and his opponents. These were common statements made about the rookie from the “U” after he was somewhat surprisingly drafted by the Steelers in the 3rd round of the draft.
Personally, I loved the pick and here’s why; Mike Tomlin and I hope Dick LeBeau, are recognizing that the NFL is changing and you must have linebackers who can cover backs and athletic tight ends. Just as importantly, they must be able to tackle in open space, in those one-on-one situations where a miss means another ten yards for a ball carrier. Spence is exactly the guy you want for this job.
He is a little smaller than you may want at an inside backer which led many to ponder whether he may ultimately be moved to strong safety as Troy Polamalu’s heir apparent. My answer to that right now is ‘no.’ I believe Spence is a guy you will see on the field in obvious passing situations spelling Larry Foote at linebacker.
I’ve been wrong before about players I think will be great ones. VERY wrong in fact, but I have a feeling about Spence. Give him time to grasp the defense and I think you’ll see a damn good football player.
Other Options – Chris Carter, Morty Ivy and veteran Brandon Johnson who comes over from Cincinnati. Rookies Ryan Baker and Adrian Robinson will be longshots, but this is typical for linebacker-laden teams like the Steelers.
Analysis – Your first four are set in stone with Harrison, Woodley, Timmons and Foote in place. I also believe Spence will be on the roster and will be a special teams monster early on. Worilds and Sylvester will be given every opportunity and will make it, but I have concerns. If a youngster proves he can play an OLB or ILB just as well and can play special teams too, then the youngster may get a spot based simply on salary considerations.