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: Right Outside Linebacker
2013 Opening Day Starter: Jason Worilds
Projected 2014 Starter: Jarvis Jones
Jason Worilds was the opening day starter at right outside linebacker, and would have been the primary player at the position for the bulk of the season if he didn’t have to be shifted to the left side in a move that was necessitated by LaMarr Woodley’s injury.
The Steelers plugged in Jarvis Jones by the second week, but it wasn’t long before they realized they’d erred and put Worilds back into the starting lineup, so for that reason I’m considering Worilds as the primary right outside linebacker last season if all had gone to plan.
Still, Jones wound up starting eight games last season at right outside linebacker, recording 40 tackles, though managing just one sack. He batted down four passes, but managed no splash plays outside of a single sack, though his pressure did help force one interception.
Worilds, meanwhile, recorded eight sacks and forced two fumbles on top of 63 tackles, which is a nice total for a 3-4 outside linebacker. While ideally we will see improvement from both outside linebackers, it’s clear that Jones has higher to climb.
Last season, the Steelers had options—a fallback plan. They had three outside linebackers. After having released Woodley, they will be relying on Chris Carter and Arthur Moats as the primary depth at the position.
In other words, it’s crucial that Jones not only take that next step this year, but also stay healthy. He did miss two games in his rookie year, though neither were explicitly due to conventional injury. He suffered a concussion early in the year, which forced him to miss a game, and he sat out another late in the season with an illness.
Worilds also battled injury late, and as a result we got a glimpse of what the defense would look like if the Steelers were forced to rely on their backups at the pass rushing positions.
So much of the potential of this defense going forward depends upon Jones taking the next step, and unlike most of the team’s younger players, he’s losing the training wheels in just his second season.
Worilds couldn’t crack the starting lineup until his fourth season. Cameron Heyward had to wrest a starting job from Ziggy Hood mid-season in year three. Cortez Allen saw a gradual ascent to starter by year three, where he nonetheless stumbled and got benched.
Pittsburgh can’t afford to bench Jones again in year two. There’s no one left to bench him for.