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Nasty up front - Part two: From dearth of quality to deluge of potential at LB

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Pittsburgh's front seven has been transformed over the last few years into a young, athletic unit. In 2015, they have the potential for greatness -- but can that potential be realized? In 2014, the well ran dry for much of the season. In 2015, it might be a gusher.

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Lawrence Timmons: 2007 first-round draft pick. Seven-year starter, has led the team in tackles most of those years. 2014 Pro-Bowl linebacker.

Jarvis Jones: 2013 first-round draft pick.

Ryan Shazier: 2014 first-round draft pick.

Bud Dupree: 2015 first-round draft pick (is anyone else seeing a pattern here?).

Vince Williams: Primary starter alongside Timmons in 2013.

James Harrison: From undrafted free agent to the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and a generally surly beast on the field.

And let's not forget Arthur Moats -- a largely unsung hero in 2014 and the likely starter at left outside linebacker -- as well as Sean Spence, Terence Garvin, Jordan Zumwalt, Howard Jones, Shawn Lemon, Shayon Green and Anthony Chickillo.

That's a lot of names, but it's highly likely the 2015 Steelers' linebacker corps will be made up entirely from that list. That list shares a few traits with the defensive line. For one thing, there is plenty of size -- five are listed at 250 pounds or more. They are fast, athletic, and mostly hard hitters.

And as long as Harrison is within 50 miles of the team, you know there will be a healthy does of nasty.

Healthy for the Steelers, at least. Colt McCoy is still looking for a few teeth, I think.

But nine of these 14 guys were available last year, and the Steelers managed a historically low 33 sacks while the run defense gave up 4.4 yards per carry. So what went wrong in 2014?

For one thing, Jason Worilds -- now retired -- had well-documented struggles in run defense and rushing the quarterback. He wasn't bad; he just wasn't playing above replacement level most of the year. A lot of his sacks were of the "gimme" variety, and he couldn't hold the edge in the running game with anything approaching consistency.

Injuries to both Jarvis Jones and Shazier also put a heavy, wet damper on things. Jones was placed on injured reserve with designation to return after a wrist injury that broke bones, tore ligaments and required surgery. Shazier struggled through two separate injuries throughout the year, limiting his ability to get any meaningful time on the field.

And Harrison wasn't even re-signed until Jones was injured, for crying out loud.  Whoever let that happen in the first place should be severely reprimanded. Or at least given a five-minute timeout in the corner with no snack.

The bottom line, though, is the linebackers should be markedly better in 2015.


If they can all stay healthy.

It's a big "if", but let's assume for a minute that it actually happens.  Let's pretend Outside Linebackers Coach Joey Porter gets his wish and Harrison only sees 20 to 25 snaps per game. (It's at this point in this article that Larry the Cable Guy would be heard saying, "I don't care who you are, that's funny right there.") "Deebo" stays upright and sans any major damage to his 37-year-old frame all season, Jarvis protects his partially bionic wrist and Shazier learns to stay away from piles if he isn't going to do much to help. Miracles happen, fanfare plays.

Harrison can still play. Moats should be even better with a season under his belt in this system. Timmons is aging like a bottle of Dom Perignon in a cool, dry cellar. Williams and Spence both played 2014 like it was a contract year.

There are six outright locks for the roster: Timmons, Jones, Shazier, Moats, Harrison and Dupree. There are two more who are as close to locks as you will ever find in Williams and Spence. That leaves possibly one, maaaaaybe two more spots, and six guys to choose from. Lemon led the Canadian Football League in sacks last season, Chickillo is a 2015 draft pick, and both Howard Jones and Zumwalt could find places. Heck, it's amazing that a special-teams stud like Garvin could actually be the odd man out because of the overload of potential in this group of guys. This battle will easily come down to the wire.

In 2014, it seemed there wasn't enough talent or potential to go around, thanks to injuries. In 2015, the problem is figuring out what from this overload of potential will need to be jettisoned to get the roster down to 53.

It's a nice problem to have.