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Making Sense of the Pittsburgh Steelers Linebacker Situation

While reading some of the commentary provided by you all here on Behind the Steel Curtain recently, I had several fresh thoughts about the linebacker situation for the Pittsburgh Steelers. There's not a whole lot to assess personnel wise at the outside linebacker position. 2008 Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison and third year sensation LaMarr Woodley have the two outside 'backer positions locked down for at least the next two or three years.

It's the inside linebacker position in Dick LeBeau's 3-4 defense that I've been contemplating since the Steelers brought back Larry Foote to Pittsburgh after his one year stay over in Detroit. 

The following is an excerpt from a very informative and well organized article about the Green Bay Packers 3-4 defense under recently hired defensive coordinator Dom Capers. In case you had forgotten, Capers was the architect of the Steelers defenses from 1992 until 1994 before being lured away by the Carolina Panthers to be the head coach for their inaugural season in 1995. Dick LeBeau was the defensive backs coach during Capers three years in Pittsburgh, so suffice it to say, much of what this article covers regarding Capers' 3-4 scheme in Green Bay is transferable to what the Steelers do defensively under Coach LeBeau.

The entire article is worth reading, but the excerpt I was compelled to share here is about the two inside linebacker positions in the 3-4 (bold emphasis mine):

There are two distinctly different ILB positions, the SILB and WILB, strong and weak. In Dom's system the SILB is named the buck, the WILB is named the mack. Unlike the OLB's, the ILB's do change sides based on which side the TE is on, with good reason. Usually if there is an uncovered gap or extra blocker, it is on the strong side. When looking at number counts, especially when a FB is involved, there are almost always as many blockers on the strong side as there are defenders. The buck and mack have very different skill sets as it relates to the run.

The buck is a banger. Remember one of the initial premises I made, a back with no blockers isn't going very far. The buck eliminates the blockers. If there is a G coming through, mix it up with the G and try to keep him in the gap. If the FB is coming through, stop him in his tracks. The last thing you want the buck doing is shedding the blocks, unless the RB is past or nearly past him. If he sheds the blocks early and fails to tackle the back, he made matters worse, now these blockers are in the secondary, the plus one has a blocker coming his way. Not good. The buck is supposed to engage blockers, not run around them.

If the buck has to take care of an offensive lineman, the best you can hope for is that he holds him up in the gap and doesn't get blown backward or thrown to the ground. Likewise he should hit the FB back and maintain control of the gap. The buck is essentially a small mobile defensive lineman, as it relates to the run, he almost always is part of the gap control scheme and has a gap assigned to him. He did his job if the back has to look elsewhere for an opening and if there are no blockers out in front of him.

The mack is the playmaker. He often has no gap assigned to him. He is to seek and destroy the guy with the ball. If the rest of the front did their jobs, he should be free of blockers. If not, he should shed any block immediately or go around them in pursuit of the ball. The mack is the star of the defense. He should always be around the ball. If he is blocked, the secondary has to make the play.

Okay, now, some of my thoughts about the Steelers inside linebacker situation. First though, some of the pertinent questions.

  1. Why hasn't Lawrence Timmons developed into the monster that we all thought he would be by now heading into his fourth year?
  2. How much does James Farrior have left in the tank at 34 years of age?
  3. How will defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau utilize the trio of Farrior, Larry Foote and Timmons? (and really, I should say the quartet and add Keyaron Fox, as he's proven plenty capable of playing at a starting level when given the opportunity).
Let me start with the first question about Lawrence Timmons. I don't think any Steelers fans would say that Lawrence Timmons has been disappointing during his first three years in Pittsburgh. The man helped the team win its franchise best sixth Lombardi Trophy in 2008. And he made numerous plays this past year as well when he was healthy. Still, I don't think that many Steelers fans would say that he's entirely lived up to expectations or come anywhere close to fulfilling his potential in the black and gold. 


Above all else, I think Timmons is not nearly as well suited to play the 'buck' position than he is the 'mack'. Read above where I emphasized in bold the sentence: 'the buck is a banger.' I specifically remember thinking to myself during the '08 championship run this thought: 'damn, Larry Foote is really putting his head down and banging blockers in the trenches.' I believe it was against the Ravens in either the second regular season game in January or during the AFC Championship Game, but I distinctly remember being impressed by just how violently he was giving up himself to take on blockers in the hole. 

Now, that's not to say that I haven't been impressed by Timmons' ability to put his head down and occupy blockers in traffic. I just think it takes a certain type of personality and player to excel in that role. It's also pretty damn tough to stay healthy when you're constantly expected to bang hats with offensive linemen, tight ends and fullbacks. 

Timmons, who moved into Foote's starting spot in 2009, is still only 23 years old. As crazy as it may seem, he's still maturing physically, and I think it was a lot to ask of him to play in the buck role last year. Not only that, I think Timmons' best attributes were under-utilized by placing him in the buck role in LeBeau's 3-4. Timmons is not soft whatsoever, but let's face it, he doesn't seem to be a 1st round talent when it comes to his ability to stand up blockers in the hole. Instead, he's best rocketing up the middle on a blitz or chasing guys down in the flat or in open space. 

Back to Foote and Farrior. By bringing Foote back to the fold, LeBeau now has all the options in the world at his disposal. First of all, Foote can assume the lion's share of the 'banger' duties in likely run situations. Foote is eager to be back in Pittsburgh. Scratch that, Foote is downright ecstatic to be back in the Black 'n Gold. I think he's going to be 1000% on board with whatever his niche is. If I had to guess, I'd say his role will be something along the lines of....a) playing a healthy number of 1st and 2nd downs, even if Timmons and Farrior remain healthy all season...b) a full-time contributor at the buck position if any one of the following happens...1) Farrior or Timmons gets hurt...2) Farrior's play diminishes substantially (not likely at all, but possible given his age)...3) an injury to Woodley or James Harrison somehow results in Timmons being shifted to OLB for any length of time. 

One other note about having Foote back in the fold. Above all else, I think the decision to bring Foote back provides the Steelers defense with a modicum of flexibility and depth in the middle of the field that they lacked last year. Firstly, I'm not ready to say one way or another whether or not I think Farrior will be able to perform at his '07 and '08 levels again in '10. I do know though that it's more likely he'll play at a high level more consistently if there's another capable, experienced body available to spell him from time to time. That could be either Timmons or Foote, depending on the situation. Oh yeah, there's Keyaron Fox too. He's no slouch himself as he proved last year when he started against Minnesota in place of Timmons. To me, this quarter of capable inside linebackers should mean that not one of them should be battered and bruised come December and January. Said differently, none of them should have to play through injuries next year like Farrior and Timmons did at different stages of last season. 

Anyway, more than anything, I think Lawrence Timmons will have more success next year as a result of not being so frequently locked into the buck role in Dick LeBeau's 3-4 defense, a niche that doesn't lend itself to his unique skill set. Now that he'll be entering his fourth year, I also think Timmons is plenty equipped mentally to slide into the mack role more frequently - whether that's situationally within individual games, or for an extended stretch of the season pending an injury to Farrior.

So in conclusion, I'll just say this - be excited, very excited. The Steelers defense still needs more speed over the middle of the field. And it could stand an infusion of talent and depth in the secondary. But even at 30 years of age, Larry Foote is able to provide the Steelers defense with a whole new set of options schematically that were missing a year ago.