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Talkin' Outside Linebackers: How Steelers Defense Remained Dominant With Instability On the Edge

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The outside linebacker is the glory hog of the Steelers defense.

Not that James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley don't deserve the praise they get, but their other front seven contemporaries are setting them up for success.

They're used to success. They've had a lot of it. But what the best tandem of 3-4 OLBs in the game haven't shared much together is injuries.

Harrison and Woodley missed a combined 12 games last season, more than one third of the Steelers' regular season contests. It was time for the glory hogs to give some credit back to their teammates, considering the Steelers produced one of their lowest sack outputs in many years, yet, still led the NFL in scoring defense.

What can they do about injuries?

Not much. as any middling Weekend Warrior can tell you, a popped hamstring like Woodley's isn't something that heals overnight. Due to the vital importance the hamstring has in explosive movement, it's very easy to re-injure. That was the case with Woodley, who was well on his way to another Pro Bowl appearance, even Defensive Player of the Year consideration when he began chasing Patriots QB Tom Brady out of the pocket for what seemed to be the 15th time in a Steelers Week 8 win. Woodley already had two sacks and was en route for a third when he pulled up while running, and put his hand on the back of his leg - the universal sign of a tweaked hammy.

He was never the same player the rest of the year. That injury occurred in wake of James Harrison's broken orbital bone, which he suffered on a hit from Texans LT Duane Brown (who is totally allowed to ram defensive players with the crown of his helmet because he plays on offense, according to the league that's pushing the safety agenda as if scores of future lawsuits depended on it). Harrison missed four games, and while he came back to play outstanding football (Week 9 vs. Baltimore in particular), the missed time and the lack of help on his opposite side sent his sack numbers plunging.

One thing they can do is bring in depth to help pick up the slack when injuries happen. They talked to free agent Matt Roth recently, a guy who could play both OLB and DE for the Steelers, but optimism of his signing diminished when he left town without a contract. He still could be in the fold, but either the offer or the player weren't good enough to make it official now.

Jason Worilds was neither great nor terrible, and middle-of-the-line isn't befitting the description of a glory hog. Lawrence Timmons chipped in time at the position as well, and didn't produce much, either. It will be critical for the Steelers to keep Harrison and Woodley healthy, to develop Worilds as a high-level contributor if not a spot starter, and to continue building depth within the unit.

Does the fact the Steelers kicked Roth's tires mean they've lost faith in Worlids or Chris Carter?

Probably not. Roth has played both OLB (in Cleveland) and DE (in Miami) in 3-4 defenses, and every team covets that 2-for-1 kind of player when filling out their rosters. The Steelers don't typically sign starters in free agency, but the best teams in the league find low-priced veterans to fill key positions of depth.

Their starters typically come from within. It remains to be seen whether Worilds or Carter are future starters, but keep in mind, Harrison was with the team for three seasons before winning a starting position and Woodley barely played his rookie year. If the Steelers were 12-4 with the league's top scoring defense while producing 35 sacks (tied for 17th in the league), imagine if they were able to get to the passer more often. Depth, as well as the development of younger players, is critical.

How does the importance of the OLB change in sub packages?

If anything, it becomes more important. Defensive priorities are usually based against the run. The outside linebacker becomes an edge rusher on passing downs, and oftentimes the OLB puts his hand on the ground when his team is in a nickel package. The Steelers will use Harrison and Woodley both standing up and in a three-point stance, and their pass rush angle can vary. The purpose, ultimately is getting pressure.

That pressure fell off quite a bit in 2011 from their output in 2010. The Steelers also had one of the lowest amounts of turnovers for a playoff team in league history. It doesn't rest entirely on the OLBs, but their primary role is to assert pressure. That pressure leads to turnovers, and it should come more often on passing downs than running.

With the amount of snaps the Steelers spent in sub packages last season, it stands to reason teams will throw four and five receiver sets at them often this year too. Defensive Coordinator Dick LeBeau will need to find a way to establish more pressure from the marquee 3-4 position.

Are there concerns about James Harrison's age?

Coming from someone younger than Harrison who's struggling to get through four softball games a week, sure, there are concerns. Very few have Harrison's work ethic, and I trust 100 percent in his ability to prepare his body for the rigors of a season, but the fact is we're simply not built to do what Harrison does for a living for a long time. Even the most well-conditioned humans on the planet start to feel their bodies betray them around his age. He shouldn't (and didn't) have a problem recovering from the broken eye socket, but his back will continue to be an issue.

It's also very difficult to get in game shape without playing the game. It's very likely they'll have Harrison on the same sort of pitch count they put Hines Ward and Aaron Smith at the tail ends of their careers, but you have to worry about whether that will take the edge of him. Keep in mind, too, with the injury and a suspension, Harrison missed five games last year. He took a lot less snaps than he had in the previous four years.

Will he continue to be a three-down player?

I think that's an overlooked question right now. We'd be talking about this far more often had the Steelers made a first or second day investment in an outside linebacker in the draft. An off-season can change lots of things, but I didn't see anything in Worilds or Carter that made me seriously think about the possibility of one of them subbing for Harrison in particular situations, but I can't say that scenario is impossible, either. Saving him a few plays here and there will help him be effective down the stretch - the time of the year when the conditioned players begin to really dominate their peers.

Harrison nearly pulled the second Ravens game out for the Steelers on his own last year. But he looked absolutely gassed on the final drive. It's purely speculative and hindsight is 20-20, but would he have been able to make one more play had he taken seven or eight less snaps? We'll never know, but it will be interesting to see how the Steelers approach Harrison's involvement this year. That isn't to say they need to do something, just that they might.