Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Where are the linebackers?

Now that the Steelers have gotten that dangerous "between" game out of the way -- between Baltimore and New England -- it's time to go to Massachusetts. With the Red Sox in the World Series, New Englanders have baseball to occupy their sports-mindedness this week, so this game maybe flies a bit under the radar in Boston. 

The Patriots are 6-2, but hardly anybody thinks they're very good. Hah.

The Steelers are 2-6, and nobody except LaMarr Woodley thinks they're very good.  Huh?

Woodley, you'll recall, had some interesting comments following Sunday's loss in Oakland, and the Post-Gazette's Gene Collier captured them beautifully, so we'll present Woodley's comments as Collier did:
"This is no step back for us; we're still movin' forward," said linebacker LaMarr Woodley, whose movements seemed almost designed to avoid tackles in a 21-18 loss to an almost equally dreadful football team. "We just had some mistakes out there and the Raiders capitalized on it. So, we're still a good football team, but we gave up some big plays. That's the only thing you can really look back on. You gave up some big plays. I wouldn't question us as a football team.
Huh. There's something to be said for Collier's throw-in line about Woodley, "whose movements seemed seemed almost designed to avoid tackles."

Well, he's got a point, and it underscores a very real concern that's been gnawing at us most of the season: Where are the linebackers?!  
  • Lawrence Timmons is the only one making plays, as demonstrated in an outrageous 17-tackle performance against the Ravens and 12 tackles (with a broken hand) in Oakland.  
The others  have been mostly invisible. On Sunday, to recap:
  • LaMarr Woodley had zero tackles
  • Jarvis Jones had one tackle
  • Jason Worilds had two tackles
  • Vince Williams had three tackles
  • Chris Carter was on the inactive list
The linebackers are supposed to be the core of this defense. Time for them to step up, although ... it remains to be seen whether they can.
  • LaMarr Woodley is looking less and less like the dominant player he was for a brief time before the Steelers awarded him with a $65 million contract. 
  • Jarvis Jones, the rookie first-rounder, is not making the kind of impact one might reasonably expect of a high-profile first-round draft choice who led the NCAA in sacks and tackles for losses his previous year. Jones still is looking for his first NFL sack. 
  • Jones's performance on Sunday paled in comparison to that of Oakland rookie linebacker Sio Moore, who sacked Ben Roethlisberger twice, giving Moore three sacks for the season. Moore was no secret coming out of college (Connecticut), and pre-draft speculation suggested he would be a good fit on the Steelers.
  • Oakland was fortunate Moore was still available in the third-round. Small sample size, but he's been playing a bit like a younger version of, well, of LaMarr Woodley. 
Oakland rookie linebacker Sio Moore sacked Ben Roethlsiberger twice on Sunday.
  • Make no mistake: We're not writing off Jarvis Jones yet, but he just hasn't done much in his brief NFL career. It's time to stop playing like a rookie. Some people are starting to wonder if what we've been seeing is all we're going to get. Give him time -- he may prove to be very good, but the Steelers need him to start making an impact, and Sunday's game in Foxboro would be a good time to start.
  • Now in his fourth year, Worilds fairly well qualifies as a second-round bust, which is all the more unfortunate because the Steelers selected Virginia Tech's Worilds instead of Penn State's Sean Lee, who has proven in Dallas that he is by far the better linebacker (Lee had two interceptions on Sunday). 
  • Lee was the also the much more accomplished player in college, and he would have been a perfect fit on the Steelers -- not exactly the same identical role/position as Worilds, but the much better linebacker.
  • That choice (Worilds over Lee) possibly had ripple effects that necessitated other personnel moves in the linebacking corps (including the re-signing of Larry Foote and the selections of Jarvis Jones and Vince Williams, which meant the Steelers didn't draft players at other positions of need). It's likely that if Worilds had shown more promise as the projected successor to James Harrison, the Steelers would not have selected Jarvis Jones.
  • Vince Williams was a sixth-round draft choice this April, and he has been mostly invisible, although he's gotten playing time because of the injury to Larry Foote. As a sixth-round rookie, he more or less gets a pass, for now, but he's been thrust into the lineup, and that means he has to up his game. Like, now.
  • Chris Carter, a 2011 fifth-round pick out of Fresno State, was projected to be a potential pass-rushing force. He's not been any kind of force, and it appears he is on his way out.
Jones is going to be around for a while, and since he and Sio Moore are fellow rookies, maybe Jones could take heart from something Moore himself said during the week before the Steelers game:
“I feel like I’ve made steady progress,” Moore said. “The player I was in Week 1 is better than the guy who went through training camp. The player I am after Week 6 is better than the player I was when the season started. I feel likeI’ve grown and gotten a lot smarter. That in-game experience has helped, and now I want to make the right turn into the second half of the season, so there are less errors and more big plays.”

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