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Steelers Position Battle Review: Outside Linebackers

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PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 08:  Jason Worilds #93 of the Pittsburgh Steelers sacks Colt McCoy #12 of the Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field on December 8, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 08: Jason Worilds #93 of the Pittsburgh Steelers sacks Colt McCoy #12 of the Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field on December 8, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Getty Images

The Steelers have fielded for the past several years arguably the best OLB combination in the NFL in James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley. Both are expected to return this season, although Harrison is currently on the PUP list. He is considered probable to start the season.

However, last year revealed some cracks in the armor. Harrison began the season in his accustomed place, but was not his accustomed self as he struggled with the affects of two off-season back surgeries. Just as he was returning to form a broken orbital bone, an injury sustained in the Texans game, kept him out for the next four weeks. Before Harrison’s return LaMarr Woodley was injured during Game Eight vs. the Patriots, but not before Woodley recorded the last two sacks he would get in the 2011 season.

Given the enormous importance of the OLBs in Dick LeBeau’s defense, quality depth at the position may make the difference between a good defense and a great one. It might also make the difference between a positive or negative balance in the turnover/takeaway column. As a result, the position battle for the primary backups to Harrison and Woodley is particularly interesting this summer. Let's take a closer look.

The Candidates

Jason Worilds:

The Steelers’ 2010 second-round pick, Worilds has long been considered the heir apparent to James Harrison, who is most likely reaching his sell-by date in the next few years. The picture above is Worilds sacking Colt McCoy in the December 8 game last season. It was just one of those days for McCoy...

Chris Carter:

A 2011 fifth-round pick, Carter saw little playing time last season due to a recurring hamstring injury. As Neal Coolong said in a June 2012 article, Carter, in his few snaps on defense, looked rather lost. Nonetheless, his experience last year, limited as it was, puts him at the head of the line for the other backup position.

Brandon Johnson:

A fifth-round pick in 2006 for Pittsburgh West, the Cardinals cut ties with Johnson after the 2007 season, and he was picked up by the Bengals. He played for the Bengals for four seasons. Johnson can either play on the inside or outside, although given the Steelers asked him to add some weight it is likely they are looking at him more as outside depth.

Adrian Robinson:

A DE at Temple, Robinson played well but was considered undersized for the NFL, and went undrafted in 2012. The Steelers signed him immediately after the draft was over and promptly moved him to OLB.

Ryan Baker:

A 2011 UDFA who spent some time at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ training camp before being cut, Baker was signed in June after the Steelers released the injured Pitt UDFA Brandon Lindsey.

The Battle

Which of these players are at the top of the depth chart, or are working their way up? Obviously, the first man in line is Jason Worilds. There’s only one problem—he hasn’t been on the field so far at all.

He began training camp on the PUP, due to wrist surgery in early June. He assured Jim Wexell shortly thereafter it was "just a cleanup" and he would be back in action in a month. A month is up and there doesn’t seem to be any immediate prospect of his joining his teammates for much-needed reps.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first bout Worilds has had with long-term injuries. He was out for four games last season with a quad injury. His NFL scouting report ends this way:

Struggled with shoulder injuries throughout his college career, so durability is a red flag.

Worilds played well last season when he was on the field for the most part. He earned an AV of 5 from Pro Football Reference. LaMarr Woodley received an 8, as did James Harrison.) He was ranked #18 in the Pro Football Focus ranking of 61 3-4 OLBs. (Harrison was #6 and Woodley #13.) But it’s hard to win a job when you aren’t able to actually compete for it, and each day he’s out of practice is one more missed opportunity.

Does the coaching staff feel confident enough they know what they have with Worilds? And how long can they continue to wait before they move to the "next man up?" I certainly don’t know the answer to either question, but if I were Worilds I would be pretty nervous right now. If he expects to have the opportunity to prove he is a worthy successor to Harrison before his rookie contract runs out, he needs to be on the field.

As noted above, Chris Carter would seem by default to be the next most senior prospect in the depth chart, at least in terms of familiarity with the Steelers’ defense.

Carter got off to a rather slow start in 2011, as the lack of offseason activities due to the lockout was not helpful to a college DE trying to transition to a 3-4 OLB. Then he missed three out of the first four games because of a hamstring injury in training camp. He played in the next six games, but left partway through the next one, as he re-aggravated his hamstring. He did not play again in 2011, and was finally put on the IR list in early January.

But 2012 is a new year, and he got off to a good start in the spring. His position coach, Keith Butler, described him this way, as reported by Gerry Dulac:

"He doesn't know much about a lot of pass coverage and formations," said linebackers coach Keith Butler. "He's always been right on the tight end or the tackle. He has to play the true linebacker position and he's never had to do that.

But he's still learning. He's a never-say-die guy. He's Clark Haggans. I feel like he's going to be quicker and maybe a little stronger when he does learn it.

Butler isn’t his only fan, although perhaps his most important one. Craig Wolfley noted the following last week:

Speaking of guys using their practice reps to standout, OLB Chris Carter is having a terriffic camp. He’s playing under control, not near as head-heavy as he was last year and with 8-10 pounds of added size and strength, he’s looked good rushing the passer.

But, as we saw earlier, Carter and Worilds aren’t the only OLBs at camp not named Woodley or Harrison. How successful are the "camp bodies" at making a case for moving ahead of Worilds, Carter, or both?

Of the three mentioned above, Ryan Baker almost certainly has the least chance to push for a spot. He’s undersized for an OLB, for one thing, has no experience in the NFL, and as a late signing has had little opportunity to assimilate the intricacies of the defense. As far as I know, he hasn’t shown anything so far to argue for a place at the table. If he sticks at all, it seems likely Baker will end up on the inside. Or the practice squad.

Brandon Johnson is a bit of a different case. He is also a late signing, but he has considerable NFL experience, including experience playing against the Steelers twice a year. He also has the "positional flexibility" Mike Tomlin loves.

The Trib’s Alan Robinson commented on Brandon Johnson last Sunday:

Unlike the numerous younger players in camp trying to win jobs, outside linebacker Brandon Johnson is a seven-year veteran. With James Harrison and Jason Worilds still on the physically unable to perform list, Johnson got additional playing time and made two tackles, one for a loss, plus a special teams tackle against the Eagles on Thursday. He played one quarter at inside linebacker, another at outside linebacker. "I made some plays, but I’ve got to make more for the amount of time I was out there," Johnson said. "I really only made a few good plays, so I’ve got to have a better understanding of my defense, where my help is."

Although Johnson has not so far made a strong argument to move up the chart, the uncertainties due to injuries and the inexperience of most of the depth players may make his veteran status more valuable than it otherwise might be.

The player making the biggest splash at the moment is almost certainly Adrian Robinson. His performance on the third string in last week’s pre-season game won him accolades. It is interesting to look at the progression of the reports on him since training camp began:

Jim Wexell, July 30:

Undrafted rookie Adrian Robinson (46) flashes plenty of pass-rush potential but won’t be anything more than a practice squad player if he can’t get off blocks.

Craig Wolfley on July 30:

A guy that i’m starting to notice. OLB Adrian Robinson from Temple. He’s got something cooking in the kitchen. Can get after it on the pass rush.

Jim Wexell, August 7:

OK, Mr. Personnel Man, what are you seeing?

"If you’re asking me about sleepers, my favorite is Adrian Robinson. That kid has some quickness."

Does he get off blocks? Does he have any counter moves?

"No. No," the source said. "But those are things that can be coached. All I can tell you right now is that he’s disrupted quite a few practices."

Thursday night, against the Eagles, in serious need of a chance to sit down and recover, Robinson got off his blocks.

So does the emergence of Adrian Robinson spell trouble for Jason Worilds? Here’s what Tunch Ilkin had to say yesterday, (August 14,) in a comment in passing when talking about what he would like to see in the next preseason game:

It’s fun to watch these young guys on the outside, Adrian Robinson, Chris Carter; they’re putting pressure on the when James Harrison comes back, he’ll be nice and rested, Jason Worilds as well.

Ilkin clearly doesn’t think Worilds’ job is in any danger. Neither do I, at this point. He was a second-round pick only two years ago, and unless he showed nothing at all last season, which is clearly not the case, it is highly unlikely the Steelers are going to give up on him just yet. But it is reasonable to think his effectiveness this coming season is going to be compromised to some degree without training camp, through no fault of his own.

It wouldn't do any good or make any sense to rush him back from injury, either. This isn't an issue of effort on his part. Nonetheless, he continues to sit on PUP, and Robinson and Carter continue to make a splash at camp, and hopefully throughout the preseason. The final result is anybody’s guess.