If you're going to take a look at the Pittsburgh Steelers, any year, let alone 2010, it's pretty easy to figure out where to start. Blitzburgh lives and dies with one position... Linebackers. At first glance we've got 14 on the roster right now. At second glance, I thought about starting with another position, fourteen is a lot, but at third glance I talked myself into it. So we'll start with the guys projected to start.
James Farrior 6'2"/ 243 lbs./ ILB
Farrior, a 14 year pro (8 year Steeler) was the eighth overall selection in 1997. At 35, he remains an unquestioned locker room leader, and the on field general for Dick LeBeau. It is fairly safe to say he is nearing the end of his run in the NFL, but what a run it was. Despite what I would assume was a disappointing start with the Jets, he has only missed four games in Black and Gold, and his time here will always be fondly remembered by fans, undoubtedly. He is expected to be one of three men in our projected trio of inside backers. It will be interesting to see how much time Farrior sees on the field this year. I expect it to still be a fair amount in base 3-4, but given what looked to be a lost step last year, in passing downs, we may see some speedier options.
Strengths: Leadership, sound all around and consistent play
Weaknesses: Speed is in question due to age
Roster Shot: 99.9%
Lawrence Timmons 6'1"/ 234 lbs./ ILB
Timmons was the first ever draft selection of the Tomlin era, 15th overall in 2007. After a
redshirt rookie year, Timmons got an increased workload in his second year, and was impressive, despite only "starting" twice. His third year, despite being set back by injury, showed even more promise, improving in every statistical category and displaying elite athleticism and speed for a linebacker. The best part is, after three seasons of experience in the NFL, he is still only 24. The best is yet to come from our LT, which in hindsight, is a nickname I may now never use again for him.
Strengths: Speed, coverage, athleticism, versatility
Weaknesses: Still not a sure tackler, occasional over pursuit of ball carrier
Roster Shot: 99.9%
Larry Foote 6'1"/ 239 lbs./ ILB
Before I even start with Larry, anybody remember this ^ up here ^ happening? I don't, but maybe I should. I Google imaged "Larry Foote camp" and here's what I got, I had other options to go with, but... Who is that Larry has a death grip on? What did that guy say to make him do that? Who's that guy in the back round who couldn't seem less concerned? But I digress, 11 more linebackers to go, focus... focus...
He's ba - ack! A year ago, we were wishing Larry luck in Detroit, as he returned home after a release brought on by the up and coming Lawrence Timmons. Now, he returns, like a welcomed winter after a hot, hot summer. He returns to the defense he helped to two Superbowl victories, and possibly returns to step into the shoes of long time running mate James Farrior in the near future. After a year on a new squad, in a new defense for the first time since 2002, and in a new scheme to boot, Foote will have an impact on this team both in his play and through emotion. I'd be hard pressed to find a fan not excited at the promise of that first Foote Stomp back in Black and Gold. He's a solid linebacker, which is clearly why he's here again, but his role as the emotional leader may not have been fully quantified prior to his departure last season.
Strengths: Leader, solid play, knowledge of system
Weaknesses: Not a great athlete, not great speed
Roster Shot: 99.9%
James Harrison 6'0"/ 242 lbs./ Bad, Bad Man
Even practice jerseys and pads don't tell James Harrison what to do. It's hard to imagine what Bill Cowher was thinking not playing this guy for those years. I like Clark Hagans and all, but jeez (Think Peezy and Deebo, then stop, quick, you'll give the people around you nightmares, never mind what might happen to you). Thirty four sacks in his three seasons as a starter, 19 forced fumbles, one long TD return with no time on the clock. That's what you get from Harrison. Nonstop effort, combined with brute force, equaling pain for offensive players. James (can I call you James?) is however 32, and regardless of however much less wear and tear he may have received in the past as compared to most 32 year old linebackers, Mother Nature eventually catches up to everyone. Harrison is for now, still a defensive nightmare for tackles, quarterbacks, and the occasional halfback left out to dry.
Strengths: Constant pressure, knack for making big plays at big times, reliable tough veteran
Weaknesses: A clear lack of an offensive holding penalty
Roster Shot: 99.9%
LaMarr Woodley 6'2"/ 265 lbs/ OLB
LaMarr Woodley. How good is this guy, I mean really? The second selection in Tomlin's first draft is the constant pressure quarterbacks feel from the other side of the field. His bull rush is second to none, and I will never be told otherwise. I like to think I have seen them all going today, but no one puts more pain into the lower backs of tackles like LaMarr. His 29 regular season sacks in three seasons, really only two playing legit downs, are an impressive total. His terrorizing of quarterbacks come playoff time is really uncanny, and his sack(s) of Kurt Warner sealed the Superbowl for us on that last drive by the Cardinals. He is 25, and will turn 26 during the regular season in the week leading up to a Monday showdown versus the Bengals. Entering his physical prime, a pretty good guy off the field (with the exception of a passion for MMA... save it MMA fan. I don't care how cool you think it is) and increasing his sack total each year in the NFL, what can you say to dampen the spirit of Steeler Nation when talking about Wood? One word... contract. Get it done Front Office, get it done.
Strengths: Well... strength, bull rush, motor, intensity
Weaknesses: Coverage still suspect, uncertain future
Roster Shot: 99.9%
So there are the starters. Yes, there are five on my list, and we only start four. You know why out there, you know why.
But, with either age or contract future seemingly a concern across the board, what will Steelers fans turn to, for comfort sake, with eyes on the future? Johnny, pop on those shades, it's looking bright.
Jason Worilds 6'2"/ 262 lbs./ OLB
With both outside linebacker spots all but locked up, the Steelers did what the Steelers do. They took a projected OLB well before anyone expected them too, in the second round, 52nd overall. The former Hokie defensive end had a solid, and at times spectacular career in Blacksburg. He displays a great motor, fighting through the more than occasional double team, good quickness off the snap, and varies up his pass rush moves well, showing good hand use and placement. He will be a project though, in many ways. He rarely was required to drop into coverage in college, and despite showing real grit and toughness (I've watched him beat multiple double teams while wearing a sling on his shoulder), his shoulder injury may lead to some concern about durability. Here are some Youtube clips for your viewing pleasure (against some top tier talent, his pro day workout, and a quick look at an athletic play in coverage despite not making the pick). His impact early on will be seen on special teams, as Coach Beemer preaches special teams and playmaking to all his players. I expect to see some quality coverage plays out of Jason as he fine tunes his skills defensively.
Strengths: Tough, good motor, good pass rush skills
Weaknesses: Skills need refining, coverage skills need improving, some injury concern, awareness
Roster Shot: 95% This guy will make the squad, but it will be interesting to see how much he plays.
Thaddeus Gibson 6'2"/ 243 lbs./ OLB
A strong (32 reps of 225) athletic collegiate defensive end, Thaddeus Gibson came to the Steelers in the fourth round of this past draft. Even at end, Gibson showed the skills of a linebacker, which really isn't uncommon in The Ohio State University's defensive scheme. His speed from sideline to sideline was on display, as well as his burst off the snap. His athleticism should allow him to be a better cover guy than he was able to show at OSU, but that will come with time. Despite great upper body bulk, he could add some leg strength to his frame, and could use some refining of pass rush technique. But like Worilds, Gibson is believed to be able to contribute on special teams right away. He seems coachable, well spoken, and can make plays.
Strengths: Strength, speed, potential
Weaknesses: Needs to sure up his first few steps (wasted steps), could use hands better, technique refinement
Roster Shot: 75% If he shows special teams ability, he should make the squad in my opinion
Stevenson Sylvester 6'2"/ 231 lbs./ ILB
Our third selection in the fifth round and our third linebacker drafted this past year, Stevenson Sylvester wins the name alliteration battle. By all accounts, Sylvester is a sure tackler, who finds his way to the ball more often than not. He reminds me of a Lawrence Timmons type, who covers well, goes non stop, and shows great range. He also reminds me of Timmons (early on) in the sense he is not the greatest player in a crowd, and can be taken out of plays once a blocker gets on him. Admittedly I saw very little of Stevenson, as Utah is not normally a nationally televised program, and I am very interested to see him play. Coach Tomlin was very excited about this pick, which leads me to believe there has to be something to be excited about. If our scheme requires our outside guys to blitz, our inside guys must be able cover. It's possible that Timmons and Sylvester can hold that down for some time. Here are a few clips of Stevenson doing his thing (Cheesy music, nice pick via tip, Butkus Award Finalist).
Strengths: Sure tackler, good coverage
Weaknesses: Could add some bulk, needs to improve his play in a crowd
Roster Shot: 50% It is possible he could make the roster, but I'm thinking practice squad. Withour depth at ILB, it's going to be tough for Stevenson to beat out the vets and dress on game days.
This looks like a good crop of young talent for our coaches to work with, but that doesn't mean we don't have some more experienced talent already on the roster, hungry for their chance to prove their worth to our coaches, fans and front office.
Keyaron Fox 6'3"/ 235 lbs./ ILB
Keyaron came to us after four years spent as a back up in Kansas City, where he only started four games. As far as back ups go, Keyaron has proven to be worth holding on to. His interception and subsequent return touchdown turned out to be the difference in a win over a very tough Minnesota team last year. Filling in for an injured Lawrence Timmons, he piled up 10 tackles against Tennessee, and came back with five more the following week in a heart breaker versus Chicago. I was admittedly not a fan at first, as I was really pulling for Rey Maualuga at 32nd overall the year before, but he won me over. Much like SteelerGirl, I now find him dreamy, but not that dreamy. He is entering the last year of the two year deal he signed in '09, and depending on what he is looking for pay wise, and if a young gun can step up, he may be looking for work next year. But, for this season, he appears to be the front runner for the fourth inside backer, barring the unforeseen.
Strengths: He's a gamer, and is willing to be the next guy in line, always ready to step in when needed, can be a hard hitter, and a sure tackler.
Weaknesses: Despite showing enough skill to spot start, he has never shown enough to be a starter. Perhaps that's due to players in front of him, and I shouldn't hold it against him. But it is, what it is.
Roster Shot: 85% He seems like a lock, but you just never know what kind of showing a younger player might have.
Andre Frazier 6'5"/ 245 lbs./ OLB
Andre has been in the NFL for, going on 6 years now, bouncing between the Steelers (4 seasons) and his hometown team, the Bengals. He has never really played much for either team, in any role beyond special teams. He has good size for an OLB, but given his lack of true defensive play, it is hard to gauge much else. Unfortunately for me, my strongest memory of Andre is him being carted off the field after the opening kick off of a Monday night battle between Pittsburgh and Baltimore, just moments after Ray Lewis said in a pregame sideline pep talk "We're gonna go out there and kill somebody". Coincidence aside, it was a scary moment for both teams, although Andre was able to bounce back, missing minimal time.
No disrespect to Andre, I'm going to skip strengths and weaknesses in his case. I know so little about him, it wouldn't be fair to guess. Perhaps the fact that so little is known is a weakness unto itself.
Roster Shot: 40% With our youth at his position, and the fact that what kept him around was special teams play (and we all know how that was last year, not blaming him, but he never stood out either) he will have a difficult time holding down a roster spot. 40% may be generous.
Renauld Williams 6'0"/ 228 lbs./ LB
Renauld may be a camp body, or maybe not. Another man I know little about, I have found out that he was a Penn State recruit, who was injured late in High School, causing him to enroll at New Hampshire. After two seasons of little play, he tranferred to Hofstra, alma mater of the great Willie Colon. After short stints with Miami and San Fransisco, he has played the past three seasons with the Saskatchewan Rough Riders of the Canadian Football League. What would propel Williams to the active roster would be his special teams play. Labeled a special teams ace, Williams is undersized for a linebacker in our system. But with the play of our special teams last season, if a rookie doesn't step up, he may become the linebacker version of Anthony Madison. Here are a few clips from his days on Long Island and north of the border (1; 2).
Strengths: Special teams play
Roster Shot: 10% Things would really have to fall into place for Renauld to make this team. I'll never rule it out, but it's going to be a long shot.
Patrick Bailey 6'4"/ 235 lbs./ OLB
Pat Bailey just strikes me as an interesting guy. I remember reading about his entrepreneurial apprenticeships back in his rookie year, now he's working on a pilot's license. Our rookie of the year two seasons ago due to his special teams play, Bailey has done fairly well for an undrafted free agent out of football powerhouse Duke. His special teams play may have dropped a bit last year, along with everyone elses, but he has shown the ability to make an impact without playing regular downs defensively. For our special teams to get back to where they should be, Bailey will have to get back to where he was just two short years ago.
Strengths: Smarts, special teams prowess, ideal size for a linebacker in a 3-4
Weaknesses: Doesn't strike me as a true gritty player, but his play on ST may prove me wrong, needs to improve all around skills as linebacker, whether it be inside or outside.
Roster Shot: 65% With the influx of youth around him, he will really have to prove why he was rookie of the year for us. We have some young guys who seem capable to handle special teams duties, which is his area of expertise.
Johnny Williams 6'2"/ 246 lbs./ LB
Possessing perfect size for a linebacker, Johnny Williams joined the Steelers Practice Squad late last year as a free agent after one year with Jacksonville. According to scouting reports, he is a good linebacker when the play is in front of him, but struggles with hip fluidity and coverage. He played some defensive end at Kentucky, so there is a possibility of seeing him at OLB and ILB in our system. For now, it is safe to assume he will find his way back to our practice squad, unless he really impresses our coaches. He's got an impressive highlight film, and video of him taking out former Alabama standout, current Bengal, Andre Smith.
Roster Shot: 10%, but elgible for the practice squad.
Lindsey Witten 6'4"/ 250 lbs./ OLB
The brother of Bills safety Donte Whitner, Lindsey has good size, and good athleticism for a man his size. As a defensive end at UConn, Witten totaled 11.5 sacks as a senior, and 22 for his career, despite limited starts. His pass rush skills are there, but he is a project in all other areas. His coverage needs work, and he isn't as strong against the run as he is against the pass. He will most likely be a practice squad guy, if he sticks with this team at all. Here are a few clips of Lindsey making plays and working out with others at the UConn Pro Day.
Roster Shot: 5%, but practice squad elgible.
So there you have it, the 2010 Pittsburgh Steelers linebacking options. Once we get into camp itself, we will definitely know more about the lesser known guys, but for know, at least we know their names.