I'll admit maybe I was a bit overzealous in my expectations for outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, the Steelers first round selection out of Georgia in 2013, heading into his rookie campaign.
Since Jones played linebacker in a 3/4 defense for a team in the almighty SEC, only the most awesome college football conference around, and Pittsburgh has employed a variation of the 3/4 defense since the early 80s, I thought, "How hard could it be? Just wind the rookie up, put him out there on the field, and let him do his thing!"
Of course, it's always easy to say things like that in August, when you're a fan, and you have no idea what it's like to be a rookie in the National Football League.
And let's not forget that not all 3/4 defenses are created equal, as is the case with Dick LeBeau's legendary zone blitz philosophy.
Jones did manage to start for several weeks, beginning in Week 2, but he nevertheless struggled to the point where he was demoted to second string, behind Jason Worilds, who would go on to have a career season, recording eight sacks in his final year before free agency.
Whether or not Worilds comes back seems to be immaterial to Jones' future, at this point, as the choice isn't between Worild and Jones, but between Worilds and LaMarr Woodley, the once super-productive outside linebacker who has been dealing with injury issues since mid-way through the 2011 season, and whose release wouldn't be an easy one, considering his hefty price tag.
No, Jones is a player the Steelers are obviously counting on to hopefully make that all-important leap from the first to the second season that good, young players seem to make after some struggles or a lack of playing time in their rookie years--some recent examples in Pittsburgh include Rashard Mendenhall, Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown.
In Jones' case, the leap might be a little harder to make, because, again, he's a defensive player in a sophisticated scheme--recent examples of players taking more than two seasons to hit their stride were Keenan Lewis, Cameron Heyward and the aforementioned Worilds.
As LeBeau tells it in this quote from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, that's generally his preference:
"The formula for us has been to get these guys and let them get assimilated into the defense and watch the veterans run it," LeBeau said. "Invariably, there have been situations where they've had to play and they've always done a pretty good job as Jarvis has done. If I had my choice I'd let him learn from the veterans and let them step into it as they become real comfortable in the defense."
So why is it so hard for rookies and young players to learn LeBeau's defense? Beats me, as I'm no expert, but I do know what it's like to play a sport at a higher level after playing many years at a less competitive one.
I've been playing six-on-six volleyball for eight years, and for the most part, it's been at the recreational level, complete with a 4-2 rotation.
However, last summer, a friend of mine asked me to join her Wednesday volleyball team that plays in a more competitive league and uses a 6-2 rotation.
I had never played in a 6-2, but I figured it couldn't be that hard. Besides that, I was pretty confident in my own abilities, especially after another friend told me my recreational skills were in the eight to nine range on a scale of 10.
I went into my first 6-2 game with that confidence and that knowledge, and I left my first 6-2 game completely confused and bewildered.
The other teams were way better than the rec. league, my teammates were more skilled than anything I had been used to, and they covered areas of the court in a way that totally confused me. Instead of being aggressive and knowing exactly what I had to do, as I often did while playing in a 4-2 rotation, I thought about every little thing I did, and I often wondered if I was in the right place and doing the right thing. I was thinking so much, it seemed like I was always a step or two too slow, and I reacted like I was standing in mud.
If there was an errant pass, instead of going for the ball, I would respectfully give way to one of my teammates for fear of stepping on any toes (both figuratively and literally), and it wasn't until pretty recently that I started to feel like I was truly getting the hang of this new level of volleyball.
Now, you take what I experienced playing club-level volleyball, and you crank that up several thousand notches to the NFL level.
You're in your rookie year, and you're in a huddle with a future Hall of Fame player like Troy Polamalu, and other accomplished names you probably watched on TV as they won Super Bowls, such as Brett Keisel and Ike Taylor.
You're in linebacker meetings with Lawrence Timmons, Larry Foote (pre-injury) and, of course, Woodley.
You have this Hall of Fame defensive coordinator drilling you with scheme and Keith Butler drilling you with technique, and you don't know which one is going to take you longer to learn.
Pass coverage, pass rushing, playing the run, holding the edge--it's all one huge blur.
You feel as if you should listen to everyone, because, after all, you didn't intercept Joe Flacco and take it to the house in the AFC Championship Game. You didn't strip-sack Kurt Warner to end Super Bowl XLIII.
You're just a rookie who has proven nothing.
Fortunately, Jones wasn't alone in his rookie struggles, and it wouldn't surprise me if, after a season to take it all in, and an offseason to continue to learn and grow (both mentally AND physically), he makes that all-important jump from his rookie to his sophomore year.
And then, maybe in the not too distant future, some bright-eyed and unproven rookie will look over at Jones in the huddle and be so in awe, he'll react to everything like he's stuck in the mud.
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