There aren't many players on the Pittsburgh Steelers roster who are criticized more than Jarvis Jones. Drafted with the Steelers' first overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, Jones has been subject to high expectations at a very early stage in his development.
Coming from the University of Georgia, where he won SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors in his Senior year, Jones recorded 85 tackles, 24 tackles-for-loss, 14.5 sacks, one interception, seven forced fumbles, and two fumbles recovered while playing in 12 games in 2012. To say the bar was set high is an understatement when Jones entered the NFL.
The Steelers didn't expect Jones to start as a rookie, partly because they didn't expect James Harrison to leave the team for the Cincinnati Bengals in 2013. But it was Jones who was thrust into the spotlight and it wasn't a memorable debut for the young, slightly undersized, outside linebacker. In Jones' rookie season, he was able to make only 40 tackles, four passes defended and one sack in 14 games played, while rotating at right OLB with Jason Worilds.
The 2014 season started with a bang, as Jones had two sacks in his first three games before suffering a broken wrist which would cause him to miss nearly half the season and rob him of his strength when he returned. In the off-season, Jones made the trek to Arizona to train with Harrison and several other Steelers' linebackers, and the work he put in looks to be paying off so far in 2015.
Criticisms of Jones vary from a lack of strength to a very limited array of pass-rushing techniques and an overall lack of vision in following the play while setting the edge in run defense. But each of these characteristics has shown improvement and, if Jones stays on this current path, he'll be on his way to becoming the every-down back at OLB that the team hoped they drafted in 2013.
Let's take a look at some examples of plays from this preseason, as well as from the team's opening-week loss to the Patriots to show how Jones is improving.
The play above is something Steelers fans saw a lot of in Jones' first two seasons with the team. Early in his career, Jones relied too much on the outside speed-rush and tackles would simply push Jones out of the 'arch' and allow the quarterback to step up into the pocket, just as Matt Cassel does on this play in the team's third preseason game against the Buffalo Bills.
However, what Jones has started to do now, and in which he has become more adept, is using the speed-rush to set up other moves in his repertoire.
This play against the Bills is from the first quarter, with both starting units still on the field. This is a perfect example of something which Jones rarely showed in his previous two seasons. Keep an eye on Jones at the top of the screen. The speed-move he used in the previous play shown set up this swim-move which, if he didn't lose his footing, would have had him in a one-on-one situation with Cassel.
Notice Jones' first step is hard up the field before swimming underneath with the inside move. Showing this versatility will not only benefit Jones in 2015, but also will aid the Steelers' pass rush, as opposing tackles won't be able to predict what Jones will do with the same regularity.
But those plays were all in the preseason. No one game-plans in the preseason, so let's look at some plays from the team's Week 1 game against the Patriots.
In this play you see the improved strength of Jones, something which has been criticized more than any other aspect of his game. Jones' bull rush was never his strength coming out of college, but it looks as though the training this off-season with Harrison might be paying off.
Watch as Jones doesn't do anything but a pure bull-rush into Patriots' left tackle Nate Solder. Jones walks Solder nearly back into Tom Brady, and if it weren't for Tom Brady being...well...Tom Brady, this play would have at least thrown the timing of the quarterback off and forced him to leave the pocket, possibly resulting in a sack.
Lastly, Jones has also been criticized for his issues in run support. Jones often gets tied up with his opposing tackle/tight end and loses sight of the ball carrier. The result when this happens is a failure to set the edge and the inability to funnel the play into the heart of the defense, which can result in a big offensive play.
On the above play, you see Jones not only with another great push off the snap, but notice how he gets full extension of his arms which allows him to see into the backfield, while putting Solder on his heels. When this happens, he's able to attack the running play and stop the back for a loss. A great showing of power, athleticism and vision on the part of Jones, something which wasn't often talked about throughout his first two seasons for the Black-and-Gold.
In conclusion, I realize these plays are a very small sample size for Jones so far in 2015, but they reveal progress nonetheless. Jones has been splitting time at right OLB with James Harrison, and that trend looks to continue throughout 2015, but if Jones continues to progress as he has so far this year, the Steelers could finally be seeing the every-down linebacker they drafted in 2013.