This season looked like it could be something special after the Steelers tore the Carolina Panthers apart back in late September. The Steelers won 37-19, but the successful weekend sparked a trend of injuries to the Pittsburgh linebacking corps.
"In the early part of the year there, we were looking to see if we even had four linebackers to play," according to Steelers defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau, per Chris Adamski of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
The injury-depleted Pittsburgh defensive unit has certainly suffered. As of today, the Steelers ranked 19th in total defense, including a respectable 11th in rushing defense, but a dreadful 25th place in passing defense.
Luckily, the Steelers enter their pivotal Week 16 showdown against Kansas City with something they haven't had all season: a healthy group of linebackers.
It seems the only problem Lebeau and company have now is finding enough snaps for everyone.
James Harrison is back this week after missing the last two games, while Ryan Shazier, an absentee from the previous five contests, played four snaps against Atlanta, a number that's almost certain to increase. Jarvis Jones, the opening day starter at outside linebacker, looks for an uptick in his snaps as well.
Jason Worilds and Lawrence Timmons have been constants in the Pittsburgh defense, each playing almost every snap this season, with some arguing Timmons is deserving of a trip to the Pro Bowl. Meanwhile, Vince Williams and Arthur Moats have been consistent contributors this season.
That's seven linebackers competing for time with four available positions. The wealth of healthy defensive talent will be a great addition to a struggling Pittsburgh unit whose poor pass defense can be correlated with a lack of pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Steelers have only 24 sacks this season, the fifth-lowest total in the league and one more than Justin Houston and Tamba Hali have combined for this season. The lack of pressure shows in the big-play totals, as the 15 plays of 40-plus yards given up by the Steelers this season are the most in the NFL.
Having a healthy group of linebackers will be a great boost for a Steelers defense greatly in need. Let's hope Lebeau and the coaching staff can figure out the most efficient rotation to maximize the value of his healthy new toys.