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Will Jarvis Jones muscle his way into the outside linebacker slot?

The author muses about the difficulties of eradicating one's past, or at least certain bits of it.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

I gave an organ recital in a small town in northeastern France on Sunday. As I was preparing for it a situation arose which made me think of Jarvis Jones. An article in Sunday's Post Gazette closed the circle, and so here we are.

What started me thinking of Jarvis Jones was the question of muscle memory. Many years ago (I’m too embarrassed to tell you how many) I learned a piece by a Spanish Renaissance composer called Antonio de Cabezón. Unfortunately I learned it in what you might call a bowdlerized version. The editor, apparently thinking the piece as written was too strange for modern ears, changed a great many things to make it more palatable. I played it a number of times during the 1980s but hadn’t really played it since.

When I was putting together the program for Sunday’s recital I wanted a colorful piece, something quite different from the rest of the program, and ran across this piece in a much better edition. I decided to use it, thinking that as my practice time was quite limited this piece would take very little of it since I already knew it.

The problem, as I discovered to my dismay after it was too late to back out, was that what I "knew" was the earlier, incorrect edition. Although I hadn’t played the piece for probably 25 years, the neural pathways were all completely intact. And as anyone who has ever tried to relearn something can attest, it can be remarkably hard to erase those pathways and replace them with new ones. Much more difficult, in fact, than learning a new set of them (in this case, a new piece) in the first place.

As I was struggling during my practice sessions to replace the past with the present, my mind turned to the question of Jarvis Jones. There has been a lot of discussion ever since he was drafted as to whether he will be the first rookie since Casey Hampton in 2001 to start for the Steelers defense in his rookie season. There are several reasons to believe he might have a good chance to do so, and most of them are bound up in the question of muscle memory.

The Steelers have typically drafted smallish defensive ends to convert to outside linebacker. This has obviously been a successful strategy for them for the most part, but it does reduce the likelihood of said college defensive ends reaching the field as a starter in their rookie year to essentially zero.

Typically the Steelers haven’t been in a hurry to get their conversion projects onto the field, as there have been good options already available, and reasonable depth behind the starters.

This year, as we all know, is different. James Harrison is gone, and his putative replacement, Jason Worilds, has been frequently injured. Worilds’ best chance to transfer the ROLB mantle to his own shoulders would have been last season, when Harrison was struggling to recover from knee surgery. But Worilds was out with a wrist injury for the entire pre-season, and by the time he was ready to play Harrison was back on the field, although it took a good bit more time before he was looking like himself. When Worilds has seen the field he hasn’t been an embarrassment, but he hasn’t by any means set the league on fire, and last year wasn't his finest.

Worilds finished with a -4.3 rating from Pro Football Focus. For comparison, LaMarr Woodley finished with a +1.3 and James Harrison with a +2.9. Of the 3-4 OLBs who played the most last season, Harrison ranked 10th (out of 34,) Woodley ranked 13th, and Worilds ranked 23rd, right behind Terrell Suggs. This was a comedown for the whole squad, as in 2011 Harrison ranked 6th (out of 28), Woodley 10th, and Worilds 13th. (Harrison's 2.9 for 2012 was also quite a comedown from his 19.4 rating in 2011 and his 36.2 rating in 2010.)

Worilds might be the heir apparent, but it isn’t by any means a given. If the Steelers had managed to re-sign Harrison to the incentive-laden deal he turned down, he would presumably have also provided another impediment to Jones’ debut, but it was not to be. Instead we are all forced to watch the Bengals to see what might have been, for good or ill.*

But perhaps the major factor giving Jones a reasonable chance to start in Pittsburgh is the fact that he played OLB in an NFL-style defensive system in college. This gives him an enormous advantage over most of the players drafted in recent years to play OLB. As Linebackers Coach Keith Butler said to Ed Bouchette, quoted in a recent Post Gazette article:

"The best thing for him [Jones] is his background, he played linebacker at Georgia, so he understands concepts as opposed to being a defensive end who doesn't know anything.

He's picked some things up. There's a lot we're throwing at him right now, as we do everybody. He's still learning, but he's learning at a quicker pace than most guys we drafted at that position as a defensive end."

This does not imply a small learning curve for Jones, though—just a smaller one than usual. Although it might have been an NFL-style defense, the Georgia scheme was a great deal simpler and more straightforward than that of defensive wizard Dick LeBeau. In fact it is the complexity of this defensive scheme which has both made it so hard to crack for opposing offenses and so difficult to learn for rookies. Another quote from the above-mentioned PG article is telling:

Jones is learning to drop into pass coverage in spring practices more than anything else.

"He's done well in the drops, but, when he was in college, he kind of freelanced a little bit," Butler said. "We're a little bit more disciplined in terms of what we ask him to do and the technique we ask him to use in the passing game.

"All he did was drop straight back and look at the quarterback. He was 5 yards off the ball looking at the quarterback. We ask him to do a lot of different things in terms of pass coverage, and that's not one of them. I have to get him out of that habit a little bit, and he's willing to get out of that habit.""

That "habit" is thoroughly built into his muscle memory, and he will have to painfully unlearn it if he wants a chance to start. And although Butler downplayed the extent of the issue, he knows perfectly well that Jones will have to do more than "get out of the habit a little bit." He's going to have to essentially eradicate the instinctive reflexes he used in the Georgia scheme.

Before we go any farther let's get this out of the way—we aren't really talking about muscles remembering anything. We're talking about the sequence of actions burned into the brain which allows the player to perform a task or set of tasks without conscious thought. But whatever mechanism we are talking about, the question remains—how do you do that?

Well, it’s a bit like the old canard—"How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice." But not just any old sort of practice. It takes intense concentration during the practice to make sure you’re actually learning the new information correctly. As this article, Muscle Memory: A Coaches Perspective, states:

So how do you successfully override it [the former unwanted neural pathway]? With conscious effort. You must concentrate on the new skill that is to replace the previous habit and they must do so until the new muscle memory pattern is established. Not just one practice session, one day, or even one week. It may take weeks, months, or even years.

It’s a good thing I didn’t read this before my recital, as I might have despaired. Fortunately old age and trickery overcame the ingrained muscle memory to a sufficient degree so I didn’t embarrass myself. It also helped that I’m an old hand at performing, because nervousness creates its own problems.

Tony Sanchez was drafted in the first round by the Pirates in 2009 to be their catcher of the future, or so I presume. He was called up to the big leagues for the first time last week and joined the Pirates in Los Angeles to act as a designated hitter. Sanchez didn’t get his first at-bat until Sunday's game, and here’s what happened, as per ESPN:

"When I walked up to the plate, my legs started shaking uncontrollably," Sanchez said. "I told (Angels catcher Chris) Iannetta: `I can't stop shaking. I don't know what to do.' And he said: `Just breathe. Just breathe.' So I took one step out of the box and took a breath, but that didn't help. Then Blanton threw me a ball that I could handle. It felt really good off the bat..."

Sanchez reverted to his instincts, which fortunately were good, and hit a ground-rule double (it stuck in a gap under the visitor’s scoreboard.) I hope Sanchez thought to thank Ianetta after the game, although Sanchez's double didn't actually result in a run, so in this case Ianetta's good deed did apparently go unpunished.

But if Jones has to revert to his instincts, the "drop back and look straight at the quarterback" thing had better be gone or he’s going to screw up the whole defensive scheme. The speed of the NFL game is such that if you are trying to think you’re probably too late.

This article, written about the 2011 game in which DT Steve McLendon had to start when both Hampton and Chris Hoke were out, discusses dealing with performance anxiety. Although there is a great deal of detail in the article, for my purposes the salient point is this:

Miguel Humara, the author of this article on treating performance anxiety, looked at the results of a number of studies on the subject. One of his conclusions was that "cognitive anxiety was best predicted by an evaluation of previous performances, individual's perception of preparedness, and goal setting."

In a situation where the coaching staff has a choice, whether they start a known (but thus far not overly impressive) quantity like Jason Worilds or a less-known one like Jarvis Jones may well, in the end, come down to their perception of how confident Jones is in the new scheme and how convinced they are of his preparation. I'm willing to bet Keith Butler is watching Jones like a hawk in training camp to see how instinctive the new scheme is becoming for him and how frequently, if ever, he appears to revert to his old habits.

Will Jarvis Jones be the first Steelers rookie linebacker to start since Jack Ham? Only his muscles (and his coaches) know for sure. We won't find out until September.

*The question of muscle memory could also impact how well Harrison does with the Bengals. His history doesn’t suggest he is a fast learner, so I’m inclined to think that how well he does will be directly tied to how willing the Bengals’ coaching staff is to just let him play what he knows, instead of trying too hard to adapt him to their system. This is assuming his body holds up, of course, which with his injury history is hardly a given.