PITTSBURGH -- There was a time when Pittsburgh Steelers held every linebacker spot on the Pro Bowl team and had at least one player at that position on a yearly basis.
However, the last time a Steelers linebacker earned that spot was in 2011 when James Harrison completed a five-year run among the NFL's elite. The current Steelers quartet could change that.
Rookie Ryan Shazier, second-year player Jarvis Jones, fifth-year pro Jason Worilds and eighth-year veteran Lawrence Timmons compose the most athletic linebacking corps the Steelers have fielded in years. And it certainly should be the fastest group as well.
"Oh, yeah, they have a lot of speed, and they're really athletic,'' Steelers safety Mike Mitchell said. "It's going to be a pleasure playing behind those guys. The things they can do will help out our line and our secondary.''
Injuries to Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, who was released after last season, hampered the Steelers pass rush the past few years. And with Larry Foote also missing all but a few plays last season with an injury, the Steelers run defense suffered even more than it did after end Aaron Smith started to break down.
Timmons' importance to the defense has increased the past few seasons, and he has responded with more than 100 tackles three times in the last four years. He also has 26 sacks, 31 pass breakups and nine interceptions during his seven NFL seasons. Timmons might not be asked to do as much if the other linebackers can contribute more, but don't bet on it.
"We moved Lawrence inside to take Larry's position when we played our sub-package,'' Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler said. "Then we would move Troy Polamalu down to linebacker, and Troy had done this before. We were playing Troy on second down in that situation, too.
"I think this will take a little bit of pressure off of him and maybe on third down we'll have a new package. We have a few ideas. It probably will be easier for (Timmons). Normally, if you think about that position in our defense, linebacker-wise, the buck position is the one that makes most of the plays. Historically that's been the case even before I was here.''
Responsibilities for Timmons likely depend on how well the other three linebackers play. Worilds has been a spot-starter since he was taken in the second round in 2010, and he had limited success until the second half of last season. Worilds had 13 sacks in the past two seasons, including eight last year, but he tallied just five in his first two years.
Jones didn't do much after being the club's first-round pick last year, so much is expected from him at the outside spot opposite Worilds. And Shazier, this year's No. 1 pick, has been a starter so far in OTAs. So, much is expected of him as well, because rookies don't start ahead of incumbents too often.
"I realize that it doesn't happen too often, but I feel like the coaches have put their trust in me,'' Shazier said. "(And) you have to work for everything that you have every day that you're here.
"(So), I'm just going to go out there, just like everyone else, go day-to-day and try to earn my job and try to make sure I can do everything I can to help this team. I just have to keep showing the coaches that I know what I'm doing to help this defense and go out there and play.''
Timmons believed this time together should benefit both players.
"He has to be a student of the game,'' Timmons said. "We both have to be out here, because we are both learning right now. We have to listen to what Coach Butler is saying. You have to be a sponge right now and try to get better in every phase.
"(But) he's our type of guy. Like I've said, I have nothing but the best things to say about him. ... The guy has all the ability in the world, (and) I'm just happy to play with him.''
If the Steelers linebacking corps can get off to a good start this season, the club's fan base and everyone connected with the team should be happy.