Who Will Start Inside In 2012 For The Steelers?

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.

  • Steeltyke

    Based on what has happened over the last 2 years I don’t think that the Steelers see Sylvestor as a starter unless he shows something at camp this year but by then it will be too late as they will have already addressed the position in the draft. So, I think that the Steelers will draft an ILB within the first 3 rounds to team with Foote for a year. I would love Kuechly in round 1 but he may well be gone by 24 so the Steelers would likely have to trade up to get him which I don’t think they will do unless he falls into the late teens. I would be ok with Hightower at 24 but I would prefer the Steelers to trade out of the 1st round if a willing partner is there. Drafting Mychal Kendricks along with a starting potential OG with 2 picks in round 2 would be my preference.

  • Lhughes

    What about Seattle UFA David Hawthorne? He’s a young (26) run-stuffer that I think would fit well next to Timmons. That’s if the front office goes the free agent route.

  • Are there people out there that expect Hightower to come in and start in this defense as a rookie?

    I would be surprised to see that happen and personally, I would prefer to see someone for the position whose skills are directed a little more towards the passing game then the running game.

    The combination of urgent need and the difficulty of the position for a rookie leads me to believe a FA is possible and maybe even preferable.

  • Ron Jammes

    Hightower wouldn’t start right away but at least he is familiar with the defense as Bama plays similar. Timmons will be moved to Farriors spot

  • Scott

    Timmons is really the best option to replace Farrior. They are paying him enough. If they don’t draft Hightower or get somebody else, then Sylvester has to step up into Timmons old role, only he probably would not play as much as Timmons has. Foote is a good backup but if it winds up as a starter, I’ll cringe.

  • Pete

    I’d like to see Timmons assume Farrior’s role and someone brought in to take over Timmons previous role. Maybe Sylvester is the answer, maybe the draft. I doubt they’ll pay someone in FA to be the answer. I’ve always thought Timmons should be the mack ILB and not Farrior. Well, maybe now he gets his chance.

  • Zach Brown from UNC could be available at 24 and makes some sense. He’s a productive, incredibly athletic linebacker with good size (6’1″, 244) for the position. Smaller than Hightower, but bigger than Timmons and similar to Kuechly. Might take some time to learn the position, but could likely contribute next year and has the athleticism to impact the passing game.