Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp Preview – Linebackers

Camp report week is here as the Steelers report on Friday to Latrobe. Today we continue on with our position previews for camp with a look at the linebacker position. That leaves only the special teams and defensive line left for us to cover later on this week. Make sure to read all of our positional training camp previews at the links below.

Training Camp Preview – Defensive Line |Training Camp Preview – Safeties |Training Camp Preview – Linebackers | Training Camp Preview – Offensive Line | Training Camp Preview – Tight Ends | Training Camp Preview – Wide Receivers | Training Camp Preview – Running Backs | Training Camp Preview – Quarterbacks

Overview: The Steelers linebacker core has a long storied history. It is the glue that holds everything together, especially in the 3-4 defense. The outside position spots played well in 2009 led by James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, while the inside spots manned by James Farrior and Lawrence Timmons saw inconsistency. The Steelers spent 3 draft picks on linebackers in April and brought back inside backer Larry Foote after his one year in Detroit. 2010 needs to see Timmons blossom inside while Foot adds depth and relief to the aging Farrior. Regardless, this 3-4 linebacker core can go toe to toe with any in the NFL.

LaMarr Woodley: The left outside linebacker position has a long successful tradition in the Steelers 3-4 defense under defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. LaMarr Woodley has done his part in holding up the tradition since being drafted in the 2nd round of the 2007 draft. Woodley recorded 50 solo tackles in 2009 and an eye popping 13.5 sacks. He heads into a contract year and another stellar season could will see him get a contract of 10 million a year or upwards. If Woodley needs any improvement in one area, it is in pass coverage, but going into his 4th season now, should see that part of his game tighten up even more. A healthy Aaron Smith at left defensive end will only help Woodley even more if you can imagine. Woodley is a force on the left side not only against the run, but in the pass rush and there is no reason to think his numbers will not remain the same or even improve in 2010.

James Harrison: The numbers dipped just a tad for Harrison in 2009 as teams focused more on the Steelers right outside linebacker. Harrison was a victim of several non calls as well it seemed and was hog tied on numerous occasions. 70 total tackles and 10 sacks is nothing to sneeze about though and Harrison should still be considered a force on the right side. The Steelers like to force things inside on defense and Harrison does just that. He will likely have rookie Jason Worilds under his wing in 2010, but Worilds is only there for depth and to learn right now. A return to form of the Steelers secondary, should give Harrison more time to put pressure on the opposing quarterback in 2010 and his sack totals could return to the mid teens once again. The only concern is his age as Harrison turned 32 in May, but shows no signs of slowing down and he has been fairly healthy most of his career without a ton of mileage on him.

James Farrior: If any veteran started to show his age last season, it was inside linebacker James Farrior. His pass coverage and tackling phases of his game have declined and he looks to remedy it this season. Larry Foote was brought back via free agency to help push Farrior and Lawrence Timmons as well as being able to spell them more in 2010. Make no mistake that Farrior is still a defensive leader and the fresher he is kept during games, the more effective he will be late in games. Because of the help, Farrior will likely see his numbers drop in 2010, but the quality of play while on the field this year, should be better. This also will likely be his last season in the Black and Gold, so treat him well.

Lawrence Timmons: Timmons is starting to come into his own now and showed drastic improvement in his play in 2009 while slowed by an ankle injury. His play against the run and ability to shed blockers needs improvement as his pass rush skills remain his strong suit. Being pushed by the return of Larry Foote and several young linebackers will make this a make or break year for the former first round pick. His leadership and overall play needs improvement and another under his belt should slow things down quite a bit for him in 2010. Watch for him to shift around inside depending on down and distance as the Steelers will look to magnify the stronger points of his game, especially on 3rd down and obvious passing downs. A fully rounded Timmons in 2010 will make the future loss of Farrior and Foote easier to swallow on the inside for future years. This year we will know exactly what he is or isn’t.

Larry Foote: Foote returns to the Steelers after a one year visit with Detroit and knows exactly what his role is. He is here to rejuvenate Farrior and push Timmons. Although not slated to be a starter, his role could set the Steelers linebacking core apart from the rest of the NFL. If he can add to pass coverage on 3rd downs and show he is not vulnerable to the run, he will help the Steelers get their final mileage out of Farrior. It is not out of the question that Foote out plays either Timmons or Farrior and gets a starting role back early in the year. Foote just turned 30 in June and for the most part has been a picture of health. He could be a very important cog in the Steelers defense this year and it is great to have him back on our side.

Keyaron Fox: Fox is the guy that brings his lunch pail to work every day and just goes about his business. He will have to prove he can fend off several challengers for a roster spot in 2010 and must be an ace on special teams. He is more of an inside weak side guy that is not afraid to hit. His understanding of the overall defensive scheme lacks a bit at times as does his recognition. He has shown that he can step in though at a moments notice, but is not an every down inside linebacker. I think he will be able to beat out rookie draft pick Stevenson Sylvester in camp and this will likely be his final year with the Steelers.

Jason Worilds: Jason Worilds is a classic tweener drafted in the 2nd round this year and is being groomed for the future spot that James Harrison currently occupies at right outside linebacker. He played left defensive end in college and is a pass rush specialist that must adjust to switching sides. He will have to contribute on special teams in his rookie season if he is to be active on game days. Watch for him to be brought along slowly early on in the season. Any time he gets on the field in the regular season will likely only be to spell Harrison a few plays and do not expect that a bunch. He should get tons of work in preseason so watch him closely, especially how he handles the run.

Thaddeus Gibson: Much like Worilds, Gibson is another tweener that played the Leo spot while at Ohio State. He will be looked upon to beat out Andre Frazier for the back up spot behind LaMarr Woodley. He will also be expected to play special teams in order to get a game day helmet. He too likely will be brought along slowly as he learns the ends and outs of the defense. He could be the Steelers replacement for Woodley should the team not be able to secure him contractually following this season. The left outside linebacker position has a long running tradition of putting up numbers and Gibson could be the second string guy for a while at the position if he catches on quickly. Watch his pass coverage skills close in the preseason on downs he has to drop into coverage.

Patrick Bailey: With the influx of rookies at the linebacker position, Bailey has his work cut out for him to make the roster. He has to prove his worth as more than just a special teams ace. He is battling rookie Jason Worilds and Keyaron Fox in essence for a roster spot and the Steelers are not likely to cut a second round pick. I really find it hard for Bailey to make the final 53 man roster unless an injury happens.

Andre Frazier: Frazier is in the same situation as Bailey as in only on the left side of things. He is battling a draft pick and several undrafted players for a roster spot and I just can not seeing him winning out.

Stevenson Sylvester: All the post draft talk at the linebacker group has been concentrated around both Worilds and Gibson. Lost in the talk is the 5th rounder out of Utah. Sylvester is being worked inside and must learn all the complexities that go with it. In all likelihood, Sylvester is headed to the practice squad where he can learn and watch and get ready to compete in 2011 for an inside job. He will also be an injury away from the active roster should the Steelers need him for depth or special teams.

Lindsey Witten: Witten is an undrafted free agent that can plain get after the quarterback. Another converted defensive end out of UConn that will have to transition in a hurry and prove to be a special teams wrecking ball in order to make the roster. Although unlikely, I am not ready to rule out Witten as being that every year undrafted player that sneaks up and makes the roster. It will take a Herculean effort, but he should be fun to watch late in preseason games.

Renauld Williams: Renauld Williams is a CFL linebacker that is known for his special teams contributions. He has bounced around in training camps over the years and is really a camp body for the Steelers and will not likely be around long.

Johnny Williams: Johnny is a hold over from the 2009 practice squad and merely a camp body much like Renauld. One of the Williams are likely not to make it to camp if rookie Jason Worlids signs prior to Friday as the Steelers will need the roster spot on the 80 man camp roster of signed players.

Likely Training Camp Depth Chart:
ROLB1 J.Harrison ROLB2 J.Worilds ROLB3 P.Bailey ROLB4 L.Witten
RILB1 L.Timmons RILB2 L.Foote RILB3 K.Fox RILB4 S.Sylvester
LILB1 J.Farrior LILB2 L.Foote LILB3 K.Fox LILB4 R.Williams
LOLB1 L.Woodley LOLB2 T.Gibson LOLB3 A.Frazier

Summation: The future has been drafted, but they are no where close to being ready now. The Steelers could very well send 3 members of the starting 4 to the Pro Bowl this year if all stay healthy and play up to expectations. The biggest weakness this unit has is against the pass, especially to running backs and tight ends. They also could struggle shedding fullbacks and good second level guard play as well. Bringing back Larry Foote may be the most underrated move this offseason. Foote can help keep Farrior fresh and push Timmons harder to live up to expectations. Just because he is a backup going in, Foote will see considerable playing time. Sure handed tackling and quarterback pressure must be constant all year. This should be another great year for the heart and soul of the Steelers defense, especially if the rookies come along quickly.

I am, I'm me. 40 something, retired and a life long Steelers fan.