It's unclear if a spotlight has shone brighter this season than it currently does on Steelers second-year OLB Jason Worilds. It's due to three major factors that will play into Pittsburgh's Week 15 primetime game at San Francisco.
One, the suspension of James Harrison thrusting Worilds back into the starting lineup at ROLB after multiple stints of playing for either the injured Harrison or LaMarr Woodley.
Two, the collapsing 49ers offensive line, particularly on the right side, will draw their attention more toward stopping Woodley, who will return from a hamstring injury that's prevented him from playing in all but 13 plays since Week 9.
Three, the fact that Worilds is turning into a pass-rushing beast, coupled with the likelihood of San Francisco running at him the vast majority of their offensive plays.
Put simply, it's a huge game for Worilds. He's got a schematic advantage, it's a prime time game and the fact he'll line up on the defensive right side of the field over Harrison carries with it arguably the most controversial decision the league has made this year.
San Francisco's offensive line has been ravaged by injuries over the last few games, and the result of that has been poor protection for the NFC West champions. LT Joe Staley suffered a head injury in their Week 14 loss to Arizona, and if he's unable to play, Alex Boone will get the start. This is a unit that has surrendered 26 QB hits and 18 sacks in their previous three games.
Against the pass
Worilds has improved with each game, and the 49ers will have to consider him an impact player. Their game plan against Arizona was to make the pass their top priority, and it's probably the reason they lost the game. Arizona brings a great deal of pressure up the middle, but former Steelers secondary coach Ray Horton dialed up pressure from all over the field, and held the 49ers to just 19 points and a donut in the red zone.
The Steelers have seen an improved pass rush among their interior from Ziggy Hood (injured groin may prevent him from playing Monday), Steve McLendon (who will start at LDE if Hood cannot) and Cameron Heyward, but Worilds will be a key in the pass rush. Staley is a decent tackle, but he doesn't appear to be as strong against speed rushers like Worilds. Not the biggest guy on the field (he looks much thinner than his 262 pound listed weight), Worilds makes it up with great quickness and explosion off the ball. The mix of he and McLendon - who provides for the bulk - or Hood - technically savvy - could be a tough match-up, especially with Brett Keisel and Woodley on the other side.
If Worilds can push into the backfield on passing downs, it will force the anemic 49ers offense to go into max protect, which means keeping TE Vernon Davis, the team's best receiver, in-line to block.
Against the run
Worilds size becomes something of a disadvantage in this regard. It's easy to physically compare Worilds to Harrison - another undersized pass rusher - but Harrison's strength and flexibility made him extremely difficult to move off the edge. Worilds doesn't play as low as Harrison does, and he has a tendency to get hooked - meaning he rushes upfield and is pushed too deep to make a play by the lineman. Harrison, despite having the ability to speed rush, does not get hooked. Much of that is due to the obvious experience advantage Harrison has, but a good amount is due to the lower body strength Harrison has, and he fact he can play with his knees bent below a 45 degree angle, giving him a base of support that even offensive tackles can't move easily.
The key for Worilds is recognition. Harrison is patient in his recognition, identifying the intention of the play. Worilds is a bit more hyperactive, and pushes up field sometimes too quickly. Upon recognizing it, he must get lower in his stance, anchoring his weight to that spot, and force the running back to cut back toward the pursuing linebackers, or be in a position to keep his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage as the back bounces to the outside.
He has a great example of how to do that correctly in Harrison, who's the best run-stopping outside linebacker in football.
The 49ers are a struggling football team if they can't pass, but they're an elite team if they can run. RB Frank Gore seems to be feeling the weight of being the offensive centerpiece, and has ankle and knee injuries slowing him down. One doesn't need to be Jim Harbaugh's brother to see you're going to have a tough time beating the Steelers if you are a one-dimensional offense. They're going to want to establish the run, and the best way to do that is going to be going after Worilds.