Don't rule out Steelers rookie linebacker Jarvis Jones starting
The most recent rookies to nail down starting jobs with the Steelers defense no longer are with the defense. Casey Hampton is gone after a dozen years as their starting nose tackle and inside linebacker Kendrell Bell's career steadily went downhill after he was named NFL defensive rookie of the year.
They took over as rookies in 2001. No rookie has won a starting defensive job since, not Troy Polamalu, not Lawrence Timmons or LaMarr Woodley, and neither of their first-round picks at defensive end, Ziggy Hood nor Cameron Heyward.
Jarvis Jones could end that drought.
"He's showing us things, and, if he keeps showing those things he's going to be a big part of that, hopefully," said Keith Butler, who coaches the Steelers linebackers.
Butler said Jones, the team's first-round draft choice, will compete to start at right outside linebacker in training camp. His main competition to fill James Harrison's spot is veteran Jason Worilds, their second-round draft pick in 2010 who is trying to win his first starting job.
One rookie has started at outside linebacker for the Steelers since the modern era of pro football began in 1970 with the merger of the NFL and the AFL. His name is Jack Ham.
No other rookie has done so, and expectations were rarely there for them to do it, especially when they switched to the 3-4 defense in 1982 and began taking college defensive ends and converting them to outside linebackers. That took time, but now comes Jones fresh off Georgia's 3-4 defense and more ready-made than what the Steelers are used to at outside linebacker.
"The best thing for him is his background, he played linebacker at Georgia, so he understands concepts as opposed to being a defensive end who doesn't know anything," Butler said.
"He's picked some things up. There's a lot we're throwing at him right now, as we do everybody. He's still learning, but he's learning at a quicker pace than most guys we drafted at that position as a defensive end."
Plenty can happen between now, training camp and when the Steelers kick off their season Sept. 8 against the Tennessee Titans at Heinz Field, but Jones is pushing to become the next Ham, who started all 14 games his rookie season of 1971, when he was a second-round draft pick.
"He's shown us a lot of instinctive football ability," defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. "If the coach doesn't mess him up, I think he's got a chance to be a pretty good player."
Jones is learning to drop into pass coverage in spring practices more than anything else.
"He's done well in the drops, but, when he was in college, he kind of freelanced a little bit," Butler said. "We're a little bit more disciplined in terms of what we ask him to do and the technique we ask him to use in the passing game.
"All he did was drop straight back and look at the quarterback. He was 5 yards off the ball looking at the quarterback. We ask him to do a lot of different things in terms of pass coverage, and that's not one of them. I have to get him out of that habit a little bit, and he's willing to get out of that habit."
The better Jones knows the defense, the more chance he will have to start in it. Woodley flashed great pass-rush ability as a rookie in 2007, but did not start a game because he did not know the defense.
"I think you play people when they're ready to play and, what I mean by that is when they know what they're doing," Butler said. "If they don't know what they're doing, they hurt the doggone defense, and it's not fair to the rest of the guys to have them out on the field. He knows that, and I've talked to him about it. Before he plays, he has to know what he's doing."
Woodley shaping up nicely
Butler is pleased with Woodley's physical shape this spring. He hopes he can keep it up.
Woodley's past two seasons were marred by injuries. A hamstring injury ruined the second half of his 2011 season, and hamstring and ankle injuries limited him to 13 games and four sacks last season. He was the target of an anonymous teammate's quote, blaming his lack of production on his lack of working out. Teammate Ryan Clark convinced him to work with his trainer in Arizona this year.
"Whatever he's doing appears to be right," Butler said. "We'll see when we get to training camp. The biggest thing for him is we have to keep him on the field. We've talked to him about that, and he understands that. Lamar is a prideful man, and he understands that he has to play at a certain level to fulfill his contract, you might say. He's working at it."
Woodley was a team sack leader before the series of injuries. He had 13.5 in 2009, 13 in 2010 including the postseason and nine through the first eight games of 2011.
"The problem for him obviously is not being on the field," Butler said. "He has to be on the field. That's with anybody. It doesn't matter why you're not on the field, you're not on the field."