Injured Steelers Linebackers Present Various Options & Challenges Against Ravens
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin gave his normal injury update today during his usual Tuesday press conference today, but he only ruled out guard Doug Legursky for the Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens so far. Tomlin tried to make it seem like linebackers James Harrison, James Farrior and LaMarr Woodley all have an outside chance of playing this week, but in reality that is likely far fetched based on the other reports floating around. Harrison himself has stated he will not play on Sunday and both Farrior and Woodley are rumored to miss several weeks. Farrior has a bad calf injury and Woodley hurt his hamstring against the Patriots. Despite all the reports on Woodley, he still is keeping it positive and says in the video below that was posted earlier today, that we should not count him out just yet. If you believe in prayer, start doubling it up right now.
If indeed Woodley ends up being down, the key player right now would be second year outside linebacker Jason Worilds. Worilds has been battling his quad injury for several weeks now and is expected to go through a full practice on Wednesday. He must show the coaching staff he can go fully all week without setbacks if he is to play Sunday night.
If Worilds is indeed ready, the Steelers have several options with him. He could play on the right side so that Lawrence Timmons can flip over to the left side. Timmons however has a comfort level right now on the right side after playing there several weeks in place of Harrison. Tomlin noted this comfort level today by saying the reason rookie Chris Carter was flipped over to the left side after initially entering the game on the right side was because that Carter was already uncomfortable at either position, so they wanted to at least keep Timmons where he was most comfortable. It makes sense.
Worilds did not see many defensive snaps as a rookie, but when he did get to play, it was on the left side and he was mostly used to rush the passer. Despite seeing most of his preseason snaps this year on the right side, I expect he will start on the left side if indeed Woodley ends up being down this week. If Worilds is down yet again, the Steelers might be forced to let right defensive end Brett Keisel stand up even more and play more of a right outside linebacker role and flip Timmons over to left. Keisel understands the right side duties in the Dick LeBeau defense and could drop into coverage in some zone type responsibilities. This would likely mean more reps for rookie Cameron Heyward at right defensive end should this be the plan.
Carter is a mere emergency option right now on either side as he is just not strong enough to compete against tackles right now. He has one tool only right now and that is his speed. If he can\’t win the race to the edge in pass rush, he is usually dead in the water. His lack of size really showed last week against the Patriots.
With Farrior likely down, Stevenson Sylvester will likely get the start again in base packages next to Larry Foote. Sylvester did not see many snaps last week as the Steelers were in their dime and big nickel packagers most of the game. Sylvester struggled in his limited snaps and looked a little over his head. I would not expect many snaps out of him once again this week. Mortty Ivy is also on the 53 man roster, but it would likely take yet another injury for him to see playing time inside. I fully expect the Steelers to have strong safety Troy Polamalu down in the box plenty against the Ravens, playing almost like WILL linebacker as he has done several times since Harrison went down injured. Polamalu has the instincts to play both the run and the pass inside and gives the Steelers a better chance at splash plays due to his ability to read, react and freelance.
The Steelers will sorely miss the play of Woodley this week if down and his ability to get after the quarterback. He has stacked up the sacks the last few weeks after a slow start to the season and has constantly been providing good pressure off of the edge. This is why Worilds will be an important piece of the puzzle this week as he is the only remaining linebacker with the tools to get after the quarterback on the edge and if there were ever a time to silence all the bust talk that is at an all-time high level right now, this would be it.
I have talked mostly about this situation the Steelers face Sunday in regards to defending the pass, however the biggest worry against the Ravens is defending the run. This is were they are most likely going to try to exploit the Steelers second level the most and with good reason. The Steelers could not stop Ray Rice and Ricky Williams back in week 1. The Ravens would gladly line up their 22 personnel package with Rice, fullback Vonta Leach and tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta to make the defensive line and linebackers play against their zone blocking scheme that gave the Steelers fits in week 1. They effectively cut nose tackle Casey Hampton and stretched out the defense to give Rice big running lanes to choose from. Farrior and Timmons could not fight off blocks consistently and the rest of the defensive line were off their feet quite a bit. The defense was forced to cheat down in the box to help against the run and this opened up the tight ends against the zone coverage. Ike Taylor handled Ravens receiver Lee Evans well in that game, but that was it defensively.
Foote, Worilds, Keisel, Timmons and Polamalu all must have good games Sunday if the Steelers hope to get revenge for the week 1 loss to the Ravens. They must also play more press man-to-man coverage like they did last week against the Patriots to neutralize the tight ends and wide receiver Anquan Boldin in DIME defense. The challenges are certainly great and hopefully one of the numerous options is able to get the job done.