Onward with our review of the Pittsburgh Steelers roster heading into the meat of the 2010 offseason with a look at one of the roster's more 'locked in' positions - the outside linebackers.
Age and 2009 Stats: 31 years old; 16 games (16 starts), 3 penalties, 10 sacks, 5 forced fumbles.
Contract Status: Signed through 2014
2009 Analysis: James Harrison was partly a victim of his own success this past season. Following his monster 2009 season that saw him named Defensive Player of the Year, Harrison was the center of opposing defenses' attention in 2010. After being held without a sack for the first two games of the season, Harrison went on a tear. He recorded 6 sacks over the course of the next three games, and eight total through the first seven games of the season. Harrison struggled alongside the team collectively during the 5 game losing streak that ultimately derailed Pittsburgh's playoff chances. He had just two sacks during the skid. However, Harrison was unable to bounce back during the 4 game winning streak to conclude the year. He was held without a sack for the final six games of the season. Like I said to begin, I think Harrison received the lion's share of opposing team's defensive capital this season. There were countless times that teams kept an extra tight end or running back near Harrison's side to help out their left tackle. It's also part of the reason behind LaMarr Woodley's outstanding season, which we'll get to shortly.
2010 Outlook: It'd be unfair to label Harrison's 2009 season a 'failure'. Anytime you notch 10 sacks and force five fumbles you're doing something right. But something tells me that Harrison was particularly disappointed by this past season. We all know that Deebo is legendary for his commitment to staying in top-notch shape physically, and we know that he has significantly less 'wear-and-tear' on his tires than do must 31 year olds due to not playing much early in his career. He's also proven to be remarkably durable since taking over full time for Joey Porter. So none of those issues concern me heading into the 2010 season. As LaMarr Woodley continues to mature into an every down force opposite Harrison, #92 should find himself in better matchups. With that, I believe, will come higher sack numbers for Harrison in 2010 and 2011.
Age and 2009 Stats: 25 years old, 16 games (16 starts), 13.5 sacks, 6 passes defended, 2 forced fumbles
Contract Status: signed through 2010
2009 Analysis: Woodley probably played himself into a hefty, long-term contract with the Steelers last season. The third year product out of Michigan finished with 13.5 sacks last season, good for 3rd most in the entire NFL. Woodley was dynamite during the team's 4 game winning streak to end the season. He had 5.5 sacks over that span and was omnipresent harassing the quarterback and defending the pass in coverage. The highlight of the season for Woodley though has to be his 77 yard fumble return for a touchdown in the 4th quarter of Pittsburgh's 27-17 home victory over the Minnesota Vikings. For his efforts, Woodley was named to the first of what likely will be many career Pro Bowl appearances.
2010 Outlook: I actually have had a few doubts about just how well LaMarr Woodley will age as he gets into his late 20s and early 30s. I don't think strength will ever be an issue with Woodley, but I do wonder about his lateral quickness down the road. For now though, the sky's the limit. Woodley should again have a monster year in 2010 - a year I believe will end with the Steelers back atop the major defensive statistical categories. Woodley could stand to improve a bit with his keys and execution in pass coverage, but being that this will be his fourth season in Dick LeBeau's defense, I imagine that progression will take place naturally. As I mentioned to begin, Woodley most likely will be playing the 2010 season with a new contract. That is if the team sticks to its historical tendency of re-signing their top priorities the offseason before the final year of their deals. For Woodley, the pay day will be well deserved. He's been everything the team could have possibly hoped for when they snagged him in the 2nd round of the 2007 Draft.
Age and 2009 Stats: 24 years old, 16 games (0 starts), 0 tackles, (not sure about special teams tackles)
Contract Status: Exclusive Rights Free Agent (means his contract has expired before accruing three NFL season. Thus, the Steelers have 'exclusive rights' to his services if they so choose to pursue re-signing him.
2009 Analysis: What can you say about Bailey other than he was a key member of the special teams units that struggled so mightily in 2009. Was it all his fault? Of course not, and I'm not sure frankly how responsible or not he may have been for some of the unacceptably spacious return lanes that opposing teams created against the Steelers last season. It is fair to say though that Bailey's 2009 season was a disappointment considering his solid contributions as a rookie on ST, and the fact that he's on the roster for that reason and that reason only.
2010 Outlook: It's hard to say what Bailey's future might look like in Pittsburgh. On the one hand, he should be able to be retained for fairly cheap. On the other hand, Bailey may have played himself out of an opportunity to stick with the organization last season. If you think about it, the OLB position is the one slot where there's really no chance at all to play your way into playing time if you're one of the younger and less heralded guys on the roster. James Harrison's not going anywhere anytime soon. Same with Woodley. And neither have proven to be at all injury prone in recent years. So, the organization could very easily find another guy off the street to see if he could do a better job hunting heads on special teams than Bailey was able to do last year. And because that player won't be expected to do much for LeBeau's defense, it's not so risky to bring in someone new that doesn't know the nuances of the defense. We'll see, but Bailey may have suited up for the Black 'n Gold for the last time.
Age and 2009 Stats: 27 years old, 14 games (0 starts), 0 tackles (not sure about special teams tackles)
Contract Status: signed through 2010
2009 Analysis: Frazier was also disappointing in 2009 for the same reasons as Bailey - poor play on special teams. The five year veteran from Cincinnati did actually play fairly well on coverage units at points throughout the season, but considering his veteran status on ST units littered with inexperienced youth, Frazier needed to be better than he was at other times. I don't have the numbers handy, but I wouldn't be surprised if he finished the season near or at the top of ST tackles. Again though, anytime you're a featured member of ST units that were historically bad, you have to be considered one of the season's disappointing performers.
2010 Outlook: Again hard to confidently predict what might happen with Frazier this coming season. On the one hand, he has one year remaining on his contract. He'll have a salary cap hit of just under $700k. That's a decent chunk of change for a backup that likely won't see the field much, if any, on defense. The Steelers could maybe stand to free up an extra $300k or so by cutting Frazier and going with another less expensive option. That I think though would hinge on the team re-signing Bailey. We'll see.
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