When you look back just to the start of last season and project the starting lineup that the Pittsburgh Steelers can be expected to field when they resume play in September, you’ll see that they’ve undergone quite a bit of change. Certainly more than usual.
With two exceptions—Heath Miller and Le’Veon Bell—the changes to the opening day lineup will be made either due to free agency losses or gains or simply superior play. The two aforementioned players, of course, projected as starters but missed the early portions of last season due to injury.
This series will take a look primarily at the starting positions that will be filled by new faces, replacing the old faces that are now gone—Emmanuel Sanders, Ziggy Hood, LaMarr Woodley, Larry Foote, and Ryan Clark.
Position: Left Outside Linebacker
2013 Opening Day Starter: LaMarr Woodley
Projected 2014 Starter: Jason Worilds
The opening day starter at right outside linebacker last season now seems permanently affixed on the left side, where LaMarr Woodley has manned with regularity since 2008. That is assuming, of course, that a long-term extension is eventually worked out with Jason Worilds, whether that takes place this year or next.
Entering his fifth season, Worilds begins his first year as an unquestioned starter, after first flip-flopping with then-rookie first-round pick Jarvis Jones a year ago. Worilds eventually showed that he was the better option at the time when Jones was benched.
After Woodley went down, however, the Steelers were forced to shift Worilds over to Woodley’s spot, and that’s when his season started to take off.
Over the course of the next few weeks, the pass rusher seemed to finally get a handle on the spin move that he’d been attempting since entering the league. He suddenly became one of the more dangerous pass rushers in the league, registering multiple quarterback knockdowns per game on a regular basis in the second half of the season.
His play against the run improved even more significantly, though it could hardly be said to be just due to playing on the left side, where he has said that he is more comfortable. The fact of the matter that most of the snaps in his career before last season came on the left side.
I believe his improvement over the second half of last season had more to do with an increase in playing time, in confidence, and in trust. Never before had the team put so much on his shoulders, and it’s fair to say that he delivered.
The trick is to see if he can replicate the results. The Steelers are counting on the fact that he can, given the nearly $10 million transition tag they placed on him to start the offseason.
Also concerning, though less so than in the past, is whether or not he can stay healthy. But considering the repeated injuries and missed time over the past three seasons from Woodley, the man he’s replacing, at least that aspect of this turnover has to be seen as an upgrade based on the available data.