By Jeremy Hritz
The tradition and history of the Pittsburgh Steelers and their success at the position of linebacker is unmatched and envied throughout the National Football League. Over the last several seasons, James Harrison, Lawrence Timmons, James Farrior, and LaMarr Woodley have manned an impenetrable run defense and an aggressive, pressure-producing pass rush. In 2011, injuries hampered the pass rushing effectiveness of Woodley and Harrison, while age limited Farrior’s abilities to not only stop the run, but also to be functional in pass coverage. Larry Foote at times alternated with Farrior and filled in for Timmons when he moved to right outside linebacker, but he did not exactly scorch the earth. Foote is still on the roster, and will likely remain, but will he assume Farrior’s left inside backer position next year, or will it be someone else?
Foote, who is 31 years old, is in his second stint with the Steelers, and has been a part of two Super Bowl victories and three Super Bowl appearances. Like Farrior, his age is a concern, and what the Steelers can expect to get from him in 2012 is a less than what they have seen in previous years. While Foote has been a good middle linebacker, he has never been great, and with more wear on his body, nothing more than an average season can be expected from him. Foote will better serve the team as a backup and not a starter, as it is time to see what a younger player can do at the position.
Which brings the discussion to Stevenson Sylvester, the 23 year old inside linebacker out of Utah. Sylvester was drafted in the 5th round of the 2010 draft and has not yet earned any extensive playing time. Sylvester did start against New England in 2011 when Farrior was out with a calf injury, but only saw action on 11 snaps. If Sylvester wants a shot at starting in 2012, he must show that he has learned the defense, and that he can translate it to his play on the field. His performance in this year’s training camp will go a long way in determining his future role, if any, with the team.
If Sylvester does not pan out, there is the possibility, though very unlikely because if the complexity of the defense, that a rookie could step in to the starting position. Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said earlier this week that there is “a sense of urgency at inside linebacker and [that the Steelers] will likely be looking for one in the early rounds of the draft in April.” He also indicated that a meeting took place between Steelers’ coaches and the 6’3, 260 pound inside linebacker out of Alabama, Dont’a Hightower. Hightower has some injury concerns, suffering a torn ACL in 2009, but he has been described as a player who takes a hard-working and professional approach to the game. He is not expected to be taken off the board until late in the first round.
Least likely of all of the options at inside linebacker would be the signing of a free agent, as they did with Farrior years ago. Free agent Stephen Tulloch from the Detroit Lions is a beast and would look good in the black and gold, but he will command too much money, which the Steelers do not have. It could be possible that they make a run at a lesser-known middle backer like former Penn Stater Dan Connor whose contract is up with the Carolina Panthers to provide for some depth and competition at the position.
The only certainty that we do have at this time about the ILB position is that it will not be Farrior. The Steelers have a difficult decision to make as to who will be starter at this position at the beginning of next season. The draft will be very telling as to what they think of Foote and Sylvester as starters, and if an ILB is taken in the first round, look for the rookie to assume the starting role before the season’s end.