By Jeremy Hritz
Thursday morning, in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Ed Bouchette wrote about the possibility of rookie first round draft pick Jarvis Jones earning the starting right outside linebacker position opposite LaMarr Woodley.
In order for that to occur, according to Bouchette, his ability to assimilate the 3-4 defense has to be sharp: “The better Jones knows the defense, the more chance he will have to start in it. Woodley flashed great pass-rush ability as a rookie in 2007, but did not start a game because he did not know the defense.”
It’s no secret that the Dick LeBeau 3-4 is complex, and that the learning process in mastering it is a time consuming one. In the learning process for defenders working to start on the Steelers defense, understanding the 3-4 terminologies and concepts is one thing, but the application of them to various offensive formations in different game situations is an entirely separate challenge. Throw in the pressure of wanting to perform at a high level and avoiding mistakes, it is understandable why it is as difficult as it is to not only start on the Steelers defense, but also to be successful.
Last offseason, there was similar speculation that then rookie Sean Spence had an opportunity to start on the inside of the defense because he not only possessed the physical tools essential for middle linebacker, but also because he indicated that could quickly pick up the defense. LeBeau said about Spence last season during OTAs, “[he’s] a very sharp young man…. he is picking up our system as well as anybody at this point.” Additionally, linebackers coach Keith Butler acknowledged that Spence had an opportunity to work his way into the defense: “I wouldn’t say he’s not going to play.”
Similar to the praise that Spence received last year, Butler said about Jones: “He’s picked some things up…. He’s still learning, but he’s learning at a quicker pace than most guys we drafted at that position as a defensive end.” If anything, this indicates that Jones is learning the defense at an accelerated rate in comparison to players that have come before him.
Earning a starting role on the Steelers defense as a rookie is an exception and not that standard, as Bouchette cites that the last rookie outside linebacker to start for the Steelers was Hall of Famer Jack Ham in 1971, who started every game. While nobody is expecting Jones to be the next Ham, if he can improve the output of sacks and pressures at the outside linebacker position for the team, his rookie season will be considered a success.
LeBeau seems to be a fan of Jones, as he said in a recent interview on Steelers.com that Jones has a “great work ethic” and that he is a “great young man.” He also said that he was impressed with the humility that Jones has displayed and that he wants to earn his opportunity through hard work. If Jones can sustain this passion and drive to contribute this season, then he may have an outside shot to beat out Jason Worilds.
But, the pads have yet to come on, and when Mike Tomlin was recently asked whether or not the rookies could “distinguish” themselves without contact, his response was an emphatic, “no.”
There are still many stops along the way before Jones’ role is determined for 2013, but the buzz that is currently surrounding it is reason for optimism in Steelers Nation.