When you think of the Pittsburgh Steelers defense the first thing that always comes to mind is Linebackers. Heck, when you think of them period, Linebackers are at or near the top of your thoughts. The Steelers have been nothing short of legendary since the 70’s at this position. They always seem to find a way to have good players ready to step in and fill the void of aging veterans or injured players.Is that the case this season though? Maybe, maybe not.
Last season that depth was tested when Lamarr Woodley had hamstring issues and James Harrison missed several games with an orbital bone injury, on top of 2 back surgeries the offseason before. Then 2nd year player Jason Worilds battled injuries for most of the year and Keith Butler, Steelers Linebacker Coach, had to play musical chairs with his primary defensive stars. This year, things could be shaping up the same way, at least to start the year and that’s a huge concern for a defense that relies on that group of 4 to be effective.
James Harrison says he is going to play in Denver, and Jason Worilds’ status is still up in the air but word is he is looking to also play. One would have to assume that even if they are both suited up, they’ll be limited. You can hardly expect them to play a full game when they haven’t done anything on the field since last season.
Stevenson Sylvester is also recovering from a knee injury and was scheduled to miss 3-4 weeks at the time of the injury. So right now, just over a week before the regular season starts, there are 6 healthy players available here.
The Steelers are carrying 8 Linebackers on the roster as it stands right now, that are active or will be active this season: James Harrison, Lamarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons, Larry Foote, Chris Carter, Stevenson Sylvester, Adrian Robinson, and Brandon Johnson. Sean Spence was placed on injured reserve after blowing out nearly everything possible that you could in your knee, against Carolina on Thursday night. Sylvester wasn’t going to take Larry Foote’s job this year but he was going to be a big part of special teams and also could have seen time in the Linebacker rotation. His speed, instincts, and good tackling would have been a nice asset even as a rookie. Now we just have to hope that he can recover and be ready for 2013, which is no guarantee.
Chris Carter had himself a fine training camp and showed some serious improvement during the preseason, over last year. He’s got a strong motor, quick feet, and good pass rush skills that just need time to develop. He figures to play in the opener even if Harrison is back in the lineup. Both could rotate in while Deebo eases himself back into the lineup on a regular basis.
When you look at the starting four, you say to yourself that things aren’t that bad. Woodley is healthy again after the hamstring issues from last year and if Timmons can stay on the inside where he’s most effective he can have a pro bowl season. Larry Foote will call the defensive plays in the huddle and knows the defense as well or better than anyone. Foote has been in the league since 2002, so he’s no spring chicken but he is the best option to start in the middle and really the only option.
The problem right now isn’t necessarily the quality of depth, but rather just keeping them healthy. I would say that this year’s group is stronger than last year in the reserve department. Brandon Johnson is a veteran who had a good camp and mostly a good preseason. He’ll be the primary backup in the middle until Sylvester returns and even then he might still hold down that job.
Speaking of Sylvester, this is his 3rd year now as well and the Steelers are looking for him to step up and be a future star in the middle. Getting him back will help this group but he still has little experience in game situations.
Adrian Robinson is raw and needs time to develop his skills before he can be counted on to be effective in the regular season. He’s a great motor and good speed in coverage but he’s still a project. Even so, you never know if he’ll be thrust into duty this year so the team will work hard to get him ready just in case.
All in call, it’s hard to say just how well this group will do because 1/3 of them are injured right now. If they stay healthy then I have confidence that they’ll be up to the task. The real test will be in the middle of the field, when they play teams who utilize the Tight End and short passing game Speed is a huge asset to have in those situations. If players go down early though and we have a repeat of last year it’s a total crap shoot as to who will play and where, and how effective they can be in a pass happy league. It’s really too early to tell for sure but there is concern with the health of this group right now and that can only be answered over time.