For the Steelers’ defense, the rubber has always met the road with the play of the linebackers. There is a great, grand tradition of linebacker play in the Steel City, dating back to Jack Lambert and Jack Ham; through Levon Kirkland, Greg Lloyd, and Kevin Greene; to Joey Porter and James Harrison. Linebacker play has been the heart and soul of the Steelers’ defense.
Lawrence Timmons and James Harrison tied for the team lead with six sacks each, but the team was T15 in the league for sacks with 37. That’s not exactly the production you are looking for from a former Defensive Player of the Year and from a guy who signed a $50 million deal just two years ago.
Lamarr Woodley under-performed badly in 2012, tallying only four sacks in 13 games. (To be fair, Harrison missed three games, too, but there is no denying his production is down.)
Jason Worilds contributed five sacks, but there has been precious little production out of any of the younger guys in the linebacking corps.
I suspect James Harrison will be released during the off-season, and Larry Foote might go, too. That means guys like Timmons, Woodley, Worilds, and Stevenson Sylvester, and whomever the Steelers find in the draft (because they always find someone) will have to step up and perform.
It’s hard to say the defense didn’t play well over all. The team was second in the NFL for yards allowed on the ground and tops in the NFL in yards allowed passing.
But those numbers are misleading. The defense had a lot of trouble producing turnovers, and the offense kept giving the ball away. The Steelers were 24th in the league in turnover differential, with a -10. (That means they gave the ball away 10 more times than they took it away.)
What that means is that the defense often had to defend a shorter field than what they might have if the offense had scored or punted.
The linebackers only had four picks and recovered four fumbles. That means the linebackers accounted for only 38.1% of the turnovers the defense forced. That is simply not good enough.
On top of that, the defense scored only one touchdown this season, an interception return by Timmons. Again, they need more production from the heart of a this defense.
In the 3-4 system, you need the linebackers all over the field, making plays. Harrison has been injured and seems to have lost a step, and the younger guys are not performing. It is probably time to let a couple of the older guys go and impress on the younger guys that their time is now, and they need to uphold the great linebacking tradition in the City of Champions. For 2012, I give the linebackers a C-.