Jason Worilds sat with an bag of ice wrapped in clear plastic, affixed to his wrist, on the first day of training camp in 2012.
The weight of the Worilds, packed in ice, was strapped to the back of his hand, as he watched the most recent best chance to earn a starting position run past him in the form of Chris Carter.
Heading into camp for the 2012 season, Worilds had gone from a distant to an immediate back-up at right outside linebacker behind James Harrison - the latest entry in an impressive list of dominant outside linebackers in franchise history. The presence of Hall of Fame defensive tackle "Mean" Joe Greene gave the Steelers the ability to own the middle of the line of scrimmage through the 1970s. With his retirement came the end of that dominant 3-technique tackle, and ushered in the start of the 0-technique in Pittsburgh. Since then, the face of the Steelers defense has been the ones of their outside ‘backers.
From Greg Lloyd to Kevin Greene, from Jason Gildon to Joey Porter, it's the marquee position on the league's marquee historical defense.
And two of its top projected contributors last season started training camp with packs of ice in lieu of pads.
Worilds was drafted into that fraternity with, at that point, the second-highest pick for that position in franchise history. His 52nd slot in the 2010 Draft was bested only by Woodley's 46th just three years earlier. Woodley had 29 sacks through his first three seasons (46 games). Worilds has 10 sacks in 42 games.
Harrison was the guy Worilds needed to usurp from the starting lineup. With Harrison's injury, Worilds would have had his chance to step in and race Woodley to the quarterback. Instead, he raced Harrison to the trainer each day, as Chris Carter - a fifth-round pick in 2011 - took snaps on the right side.
The Steelers were forced early to mull their options at a position their defense relies on heavily to produce pressure on passers.
The beginning of the 2012 preseason left the Steelers perhaps as vulnerable as they've been in head coach Mike Tomlin's tenure. Harrison was trying to work through knee issues while Worilds nursed his aching wrist. LaMarr Woodley - who teamed with Harrison to produce the most sacks a pair of Steelers players ever had in 2008 (37.5) - was coming off injuries of his own that ended what could have been a record-challenging year in 2011.
Suddenly, instead of a continuation of the nasty edge presence the duo normally produced, injuries affected the team's top three players at the outside linebacker positions.
Harrison's injury cost him the first quarter of the season, and his salary cost him his tenure in Pittsburgh. He was released, and signed by division rival Cincinnati this offseason. With him went his intimidating presence, his veteran street cred and his Defensive Player of the Year trophy -one of three owned by a player in the AFC North (Troy Polamalu and Terrell Suggs).
Worilds, balky wrist healed, had a career high five sacks. Since Worilds' rookie season, the Steelers have fallen to the middle of the pack in terms of QB sacks. With 37 in 2011 and 35 in 2012, it is the lowest two-year output in Tomlin's tenure.
And the level of the weight of the Steelers' defensive world is on Worilds' shoulders.
Perhaps history will show Harrison's departure and Worilds' nagging injuries hindered the progress of the next great pass rusher in Steelers' history. Maybe it will show the team made a mistake when it passed on NaVorro Bowman and Sean Lee to select Worilds. Ultimately, at least for the start of training camp, the fulcrum of the success of this defense hinges largely on Worilds' ability to hold the edge the way Harrison did, or to use his size to wear down opposing tackles the way Woodley does.
Staying healthy would be a plus. Being productive would be the expectation.
Worilds has missed time with hamstring problems in his career, much like the similarly sized Woodley has. He's also missed games with knee and shoulder issues in the past. Harrison rarely missed games from 2007 - his first year as the starting ROLB - to 2010, but missed five games in 2011 (four to a broken orbital bone and one to a suspension) and four in 2012. Woodley has missed nearly half of the team's last 33 games. The ability of both starting outside linebackers to remain healthy would be a welcomed change in Pittsburgh, and could also be a key reason behind the team's sagging sack production.
One advantage Worilds may have is the presence of veteran defensive end Brett Keisel. The elder statesman of the Steelers defense, Keisel's production hasn't dropped off quite enough yet to feel he cannot help Worilds win that edge. Worilds may lack the kind of technique and sheer strength at the point of attack the way Harrison did when he and Keisel made it nearly impossible to run off the offensive left side, but Keisel can help collapse the tackle inside to give him that slight leverage advantage he'd need to turn the corner.
Sometimes the set-up is more important than the skill. Worilds showed at times in 2012 he's strong enough to be able to rip past a tackle if he has a good angle. Keisel's long arms and tactical insight will help Worilds come into his own as more than just a few spot-starts.
He'll have to, and he shouldn't feel particular comfortable for two reasons; 1. His rookie contract expires after this season, and with experience in only one kind of defense, his best bet for a healthy chunk of guaranteed money is with his current team, and 2. The Steelers drafted pass-rushing machine Jarvis Jones in the first round of the 2013 Draft, surpassing both Worilds and Woodley as the highest drafted outside linebacker in team history.
All that stands on that left edge between the past and the future of the Steelers' key pass rusher is Worilds. He's already much more Clark Haggans than Alonzo Jackson, but Worilds needs to show he can handle the weight of expectations that's been placed on his shoulders.
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- 2013 Steelers position preview: Tight Ends
- 2013 Steelers position preview: Running backs
- 2013 Steelers position preview: Quarterbacks
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