The Blitzburgh image was built around the play of great linebackers under the masterful command of defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. Greg Lloyd, Kevin Green, Levon Kirkland and Chad Brown were the earliest manifestation of the organized chaos known as the zone blitz, and after many years of outstanding linebacker play in the Black and Gold it appears that going in to next season the Steelers may be in a procarious position with their current Blitzburgh group. Between contract situations and mother nature taking it's course, the front office has some decisions to make between now and next offseason.
The last few seasons Steelers fans have been fortunate enough to bare witness to some of the best linebacking play we've seen since the original Steel Curtain of the 1970's. Still under the command of the man who brought Blitzburgh to the forefront in the 1990's, Dick LeBeau, the on field names may change, but the end product has always been a constant. With the assistence of his player general James Farrior; James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons have all been outstanding playmakers on the defensive side of the ball.
Now, the captain James Farrior enters his tenth season in Pittsburgh, and his sixteenth season as a professional. He is 36 years old, and will turn 37 in January, hopefully in the midst of another Superbowl run for Pittsburgh. It is safe to ask how many more years he has in him; considering he has already ran straight through the wall of conventional wisdom in terms of players his age.
James Harrison is in a somewhat similar place in his career. After coming into the league as an undrafted free agent in 2002, Harrison was essentially a journeyman for the early part of his career. In the latter part, he was dominent. He is currently 33, and is signed through 2014. The video of him working out coming off surgery is encouraging, but if you watch him game in game out, there is one part of Harrison's body that takes the most punishment. His back issues are something to keep an eye on. He's a warrior out there, I fully expect him to work himself back into form myself, but you just don't know.
Lawrence Timmons' age is of absolutely no concern. The dynamic linebacker is about to be 25 in a few days, and has played four full seasons as a member of the Steelers. What is a concern for Timmons is his contract, which runs out after next season.
LaMarr Woodley signed a one year "Franchise Player" contract just a few weeks ago. Obviously this means after this season he is also a free agent. In the past, the Steelers have used this tag to give them time to work out a new deal with the player tagged, unfortunately the CBA situation has prevented any progress to be made on that front.
Beyond the starting four linebackers, there is youth to be tapped into, and some veteran presence as well.
Jason Worilds was a second round pick, who flashed that promise at times last year after a slow start. The Steelers drafted Chris Carter in the fifth round this past draft. It will be interesting to see how these two fare this year, because that will definitely determine the way the OLB situation is handled this offseason.
As far as the inside linebacker situation, veteran Larry Foote is locked up for the next two years. He will be 31 when the season starts, and for as good as Larry has been in the past for the Steelers, it can't be forgotten that the organization felt they should upgrade his position 4 full seasons ago when they drafted Timmons. They felt confident enough in Lawrence to let Larry leave for Detroit via free agency in 2009. Foote was brought back after one season in Detroit, and is a valuable locker room presence. Without seeing the field much last year with the exception of spot duty, his status now is somewhat questionable; not his status on the roster necessarily, but what type of player he will be if pressed into playing time. I have no doubt he'll be ready to play if asked, but what type of play we can expect is another question all together.
Stevenson Sylvester was drafted in the fifth round in 2010. He played well on special teams, and saw the field as both an inside and outside linebacker last year, which is promising. Much like the young outside linebackers, what Sylvester shows this year will be heavily factored into what the front office does next offseason.
What this whole thing boils down to is that beyond this season, the linebacker situation in Pittsburgh is pretty much up in the air. The front office will have to decide if they can re-sign two young playmakers, and if they cannot, which one to let go. The front office will also have to assess what they have left in terms of veteran's abilities and some veteran players will be deciding how many more years they want to play (James Farrior being the one with the toughest decision). The young players have a lot to prove if they want to step into any one of these possible openings.
After this season, the Steelers Front Office has many a decision to make, and many an option to choose from. It may be unrealistic to assume that the four linebackers we currently have will all be back the following year, but how do you see this whole situation being addressed?