It’s no wonder that the Pittsburgh Steelers’ linebackers are considered the bread and butter of the team, and consistently being one of the best overall units in the NFL. With the sheer numbers of linebackers that find their way to Pittsburgh via the NFL draft, along with master defensive coordinator and Pro Football Hall of Fame cornerback Dick LeBeau, plus linebacker mastermind Keith Butler it’s to hard to believe that the overall talent of the unit will drop off anytime soon.
That includes any time that the Steelers have to ‘plug and play’ that is, of course, replace a departed player, an injury substitution, etc. These guys just consistently get the job done and are widely regarded as the best in the business not only because of their physical tools, but because of the discipline instilled in them by LeBeau and Butler.
That being said, the Steelers linebackers are currently at a rough patch in the road, in a way at least.
LaMarr Woodley has been an animal for the Steelers defense, becoming the perfect bookend for James Harrison. Unfortunately, his contract ran out after this past season and while the team used the franchise tag on him, the incompetence of both sides in the Collective Bargaining Agreement essentially means that franchise tags don’t matter. At all.
Which, of course means that Woodley is currently not under contract and may not be back with the team should there be a 2011-2012 season. That, however, is a highly unlikely scenario, but nevertheless a possible outcome.
On the other side of the defensive line, (after a strenuous climb over Mount Hampton) there is former Defensive Player Of The Year, Harrison. Who recently had some surgical work done on his back. Now, he will be a relatively young 34 next month, and by young I’m of course referencing the fact that he truly didn’t get an NFL workout until about five or so years ago, which works in his favor.
But, aging coupled with back troubles isn’t something that extends NFL careers. Though, as it currently stands, Harrison is currently one of the fiercest pass rushers in the league today and doesn’t seem concerned with the surgeries nor his age. And considering his body of work, if it’s good enough for him, then it’s good enough for me.
Moving inside the hash marks, James Farrior is a well known presence in the middle of the Steelers defense, having started there for nine consecutive years. He is currently 36 years old, and despite having a very good season last year, is certainly slowing down.
Farrior will likely call it quits after this coming season, and I highly doubt he’ll have any regrets, having won two Super Bowls and been to another, having nearly won a Defensive Player Of The Year Award himself, and having been the leader of a dominating defense since the moment he suited up in the black and gold.
Next to Farrior you’ll find Lawrence Timmons, a quick, agile pass rusher that is currently playing inside linebacker due to two superstars occupying those positions on the Steelers defense. Though, moving inside hasn’t hurt Timmons performance, in fact it has allowed him to round out his game in a near perfect fashion. Having the size and strength to bring down tough inside runners, while also having the speed to cover tight ends and backs down the field (unless that back is named Ray Rice, of course).
Timmons rookie contract will expire next year, and with the way the Steelers groom linebackers there’s absolutely no guarantee that he will return, though fans would be pretty upset if he was allowed to walk. However, possibly the best case scenario for Timmons himself would come after Harrison retires, or Woodley signs with another team which would more than likely allow him to ply his trade on the outside.
But, with the current set up, the Steelers are optimized for both rushing the quarterback and stopping the run, as both inside linebackers are able to get inside of the offensive linemen and create havoc in any backfield. But, that versatility brought by the inside also allows LeBeau to get creative with his blitzing schemes by dropping either outside linebacker back in pass coverage and bringing the heat from the inside on obvious running downs.
Behind those four, the Steelers have Keyaron Fox, Stevenson Sylvester, Larry Foote, and Jason Worilds.
Fox has stepped in as a started due to injuries from time to time and has performed pretty well, returning a Brett Favre interception for a touchdown, while Sylvester has outperformed expectations on special teams, Foote has been an adequate starter and backup during his tenure with the Steelers, and Worilds has certainly gotten off to a good start to what looks to be a promising career as an outside linebacker for the Steelers.
Fox however, likely won’t be re-signed.
Rumor has it that Sylvester may claim a starting spot pending performance in training camp and the pre-season, if he can show that he take it to Farrior during those times, then he may very well be the first of the trio above to earn a starting spot on the team. That’s a big ‘if’ however, because Farrior is a competitor to the bone and won’t relinquish his spot inside easily.
With questions surrounding the current corps beyond just next season, the Steelers will once again show why they generally have a robust and lethal linebacking corps by drafting at least one more linebacker in the 2011 NFL Draft.
Some possible names floating around Steeler Nation are Sam Acho, from Texas who projects to be an outside linebacker and Martez Wilson, an inside prospect from Illinois.
I don’t predict the team taking a linebacker in the first three rounds, but would be extremely surprised if they don’t draft at least one, for depth and to breed healthy competition.