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Pittsburgh Steelers Positional Review: The Linebackers

Next in our series on the state of the Steelers various units: the Linebackers.  I think it's safe to say everyone knows our linebackers have performed exceptionally well this season, but let's take a closer look at the individuals in the unit (I just did the big five, if anyone wants to do the STers and backups go for it):

James Harrison

Having a even more monstrous season than last.  The 6.5 sacks stand out, of course, but as we've mentioned before, Harrison is a feast or famine sack-getter.  He destroys mediocre and below tackles, and does OK on elite tackles.  By OK I mean he doesn't get any sacks, but he will still push the pocket and hold up in the running game.  His short height is an asset for him with his massive strength as he easily gets under the pads of opposing blockers and holds them up.  More impressive to me is the fact he is leading the team in tackles thru 5 games with 31.  In coverage Harrison has also improved from last year, and really I've only counted one mistake on him, which was the Correll Buckhalter TD against Philadelphia.  Harrison didn't get to the flat quick enough, and when he did he took a bad angle to the ball-carrier.  Still, for how often our OLBs are against TEs and RBs, he has done exceptionally well.

James Farrior

I hate to make Farrior sound average, because he is anything but that.  However, he is up to his usual tricks, being "Steady Freddie" on the defense.  That isn't a slight at all, Farrior is attacking the gaps and stuffing the run just as well as he ever has, and he doesn't seem to have lost a step in coverage either.  That may be a factor of the lighter training camp and practice schedule by Tomlin, or just Farrior taking great care of his body.  Either way, he is still one of the best 3-4 ILBs in the league, and certainly the most unheralded/underrated.

Larry Foote

The people who say Foote is bad in coverage are just simply wrong.  He has been beaten once into a deep zone (against Jax--although it may have been Clark's responsibility), but regardless, he has done very well in this area also.  All of our coverage players in fact have done very well, which very much is likely a result of our more explosive pass-rush this year.  Foote, like Farrior, is very steady, rarely overpursues to the ball, and is a sound tackler.  He isn't great as a pass-rusher, as he lacks the pass-rush explosiveness that someone like Timmons has, but if the design is right he will usually beat an RB who steps in his way.  It's when he takes on an OL that he only generates minimal push.  Still, Foote is an above-average 3-4 ILB.  He certainly isn't giving away his spot to Timmons, and I won't be surprised to see Foote still getting decent reps this year, and the next few years, albeit with Timmons in the starting role and Foote playing the reliever to Farrior & Timmons.

A quick note on both Foote & Farrior, as I talked about in the "How the Defense Works" series, the job of the ILBs is to first read the guards in front of them, and diagnose what play is coming and react accordingly.  Both do this exceptionally well (helped by the fact Hampton/Hoke/A. Smith gobble up guards in double-teams) and it is a huge mental part of the game that often goes unnoticed.  You will very rarely see Foote & Farrior out of position, away from where the play is ran to.  That is a testament to their preparation.

Lawrence Timmons

Many people are disappointed he hasn't seen more playing time, and are using that as an indictment of his ability.  That is flat-out wrong.  This kid is a baller.  In the limited time he has been on the field, I haven't seen him make a mistake.  His coverage ability is excellent.  His speed and burst in the pass-rush is phenomenal.  The thing we have seen most of him so far, is his ability to close the gap on a ball-carrier, and Timmons does this similar to another defensive player we are fortunate to have, Troy Polamalu.  When you see the RB in the flat by himself with 10 yards of free room, and next thing you know he is stopped for 1-2 yards, that is uncoachable ability.  Timmons has this.  Of course, these are all things we knew he could do well.  So how has he done in the run game?  Hard to say definitively as he hasn't been in a ton, but he has attacked the gaps and read the guards well from what I've seen so far.  His speed is an asset in the run game, as he does a good job of getting thru "trash" (random bodies of blockers and defensive players in between player and the ball) and tracking down the ball-carrier.  Mark my words, later in the year, or perhaps in the playoffs (a la Woodley last year) we'll unleash Timmons.  We haven't had much need for his pass rush as Woodley & Harrison have been so dominant.  Speaking of which...

LaMarr Woodley

My favorite Steelers linebacker this year.  Let's start with the obvious: this kid can rush the passer, something fierce.  He has great speed for his size.  Did you know Woodley is the heaviest OLB we've had since we went to the 3-4 in the 90s? You wouldn't by the way he explodes off the snap (I could easily see him being effective as a 4-3 DE).  He also has very long arms, which he uses to engage blockers early in his rush.  When the blocker commits/engages back, Woodley will either bull-rush and at LEAST push the tackle back into the pocket, or, speed rush and if the tackle has set up for it, he uses an inside spin move to counter, which he's used to get a couple of his sacks already.  Opposing offensive coordinators have obviously taken note of this kid, because in the past few games the double-team help is coming to his side more often than to James Harrison.  There was a sequence against Jacksonville that illustrates how special he is:  Woodley beat the RT to the edge, the RB came to help and succeeded in chipping Woodley enough for the RT to recover.  At this point both the RT and RB were engaged with Woodley and he drove them BOTH backwards a yard or two.  He didn't get a sack (Harrison did on the play), but he still closed the pocket down-despite the double team-so that Garrard couldn't escape to his side.  Incredible.  As amazing as his pass-rush has been, Woodley has also been lights out in pass-coverage.  The INT first week was great execution and awareness of the route (thanks DeShea Townsend), and he's continued to be in the right places as the season has gone on.  A pass or two have gone past him, but he has shown to be a wrap up tackler in space, so the occasions when he does allow a pass, he makes the stop right away.  Lastly, in the run game Woodley has also been a beast, partly evidenced by his 3 tackles for loss.  Of course playing next to Aaron Smith makes it alot easier, as Woodley is usually blocked by a TE on running plays, and this is a big mismatch in favor of the Steelers.  Regardless, I haven't seen him miss any memorable tackles, and haven't seen him mauled over by any opposing blockers, so he is doing well in this area as well.  He is only going to get better as he gets more experienced in the system, which is a very pleasant thought for us Steelers faithful.