Steelers exploring options at linebacker
PITTSBURGH — Jason Worilds is not James Harrison. Neither is Jarvis Jones, Chris Carter or anybody else the Pittsburgh Steelers decide to put at right outside linebacker this season.
Linebackers coach Keith Butler doesn’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. What Harrison’s potential replacements lack in snarl they make up for in options.
“I’ve never had a situation like this where I can play three different guys and have confidence in all of them that they’re going to be pretty good,” Butler said Wednesday.
They’ll have to be if they want to take the field for a team that perennially sends out one of the best defenses in the NFL. While Butler cautioned it’s way too early to figure out the depth chart, he’s confident the dropoff without Harrison won’t be significant.
“We’ve got some guys who can play,” Butler said.
And it may take using Worilds, Carter and Jones to fill in for the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Worilds finished with five sacks in spot duty last season. Jones, taken 17th overall in the draft, led the nation in sacks last fall while playing for Georgia. Carter, when healthy, might be the best of the three in pass coverage.
Though Jones is considered the future, Carter and Worilds understand there’s a chance in the present to make an impact. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s defense can be difficult to pick up for young players no matter how talented they are.
Worilds and Carter have paid their dues in that fashion and they know it’s time for them to start producing.
The 25-year-old Worilds spent his first three seasons bouncing between the right side and left side. There are no such issues now, allowing him to get comfortable for the first time.
“The main thing for me this year is to finally have a home,” Worilds said. “In the past, I’ve worked at both sides, and I never knew from one day to the next where I would play. This year, I’ve worked almost exclusively on the right side, and having that craft to hone has really helped me out.”
Worilds will likely need to settle in quickly if he wants to hold off Jones. He played well at times while filling in as Harrison recovered from lingering knee issues last fall and picked up two sacks in a loss to Cleveland. The way Worilds looks at it, the more reps he gets, the better his chances of sticking around.
“I’ve always been the type of player where I learn better if I can go through it,” he said.
The Steelers finished No. 1 in total defense in 2012 but were a middling 15th in sacks. Generating more pressure — and hopefully creating more turnovers in the process — has been a point of emphasis during the offseason. Though LeBeau commands his players to be versatile, there’s little doubt the best way to stay at the top of the depth chart is getting into the backfield and creating havoc.
Chaos happened to be Jones’ specialty at Georgia, where his 14.5 sacks were the most in the nation last fall. He has proven better than advertised covering running backs and tight ends, leading Butler to joke Jones is Pittsburgh’s “shutdown linebacker.”
That’s not why the Steelers spent a first-round pick on Jones, though. And while LeBeau allows Jones will be a “pretty good player” if the coaches don’t “mess him up” there’s also no big rush to get him on the field. Jones was able to freelance at Georgia, relying on his talent to cover up mistakes. That won’t be tolerated in the NFL.
“He doesn’t exactly know what we require from him,” Butler said. “It’s not like in college, even though he played outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. It doesn’t mean he can be plugged right in.”
Jones is hardly lagging behind. The transition is just that difficult, something Carter and Worilds know all too well.
“Nobody comes in here and picks things up right away,” Carter said. “That’s just how it is. You look at Jason Worilds, even James Harrison. He didn’t get going right away, but look at how he developed.”
Carter is spending most of his time on the left side behind LaMarr Woodley but remains an option on the right side in certain situations. And even with Harrison gone, Carter believes the overall depth has improved.
“I also think we have a better linebacker corps this year, as the younger guys got more experience, and with who they brought in,” Carter said. “So, that’s a good thing for the team. That gives us a lot of weapons on defense, and we need all we can get to win a championship.”
Something that tends to happen with regularity in Pittsburgh. The echoes of the Steel Curtain defense that won four titles in the 1970s still resonate. Worilds, in fact, wore a t-shirt honoring one of the NFL’s all-time defenses on Wednesday.
“They were the best,” Worilds said, “and I want this defense to be the best.”