Steelers 2016-2017 Preview: Linebackers

Last week we looked at one part of the Steelers front seven on defense, and this week, we’re going to look at the rest: linebackers. This is a position that the Steelers have arguably the best track record with. Jack Lambert. Jack Ham. Greg Lloyd. Kevin Greene. Levon Kirkland. Jason Gildon. Joey Porter. James Farrior. James Harrison. More recently, Lawrence Timmons. That’s just to name a few. There is a lot of potential in this year’s group of linebackers. Let’s take a look:

Projected Starters:
LOLB: Bud Dupree
ILB: Lawrence Timmons
ILB: Ryan Shazier
ROLB: Jarvis Jones

That list doesn’t jump out at you and make you think, “Wow. This is one of the best groups in the league.” Look past the surface though. This is a group to really get excited about. I REALLY like Ryan Shazier. If I had to put my money on anyone of these guys having a monster year, it’d be him. He’s having a tremendous camp. He’s building off of a year where he took some serious strides at getting better and adjusting to the NFL game. Also add that insane speed he has. Shazier is primed for a great year. He just has to stay healthy. It’s been an issue with him in his first two seasons. Let’s hope the injury bug stays away from him. If it does, there’s a very good chance he’d be the team’s best linebacker. Next to him on the inside is Lawrence Timmons. Timmons looked a step slow last year while he battled a toe injury, but still racked up a team-high 119 tackles and 5 sacks. He’s shed a little bit of weight, so I expect him to move around a little bit better than last year. Timmons is still Timmons though. You know he’s going to get 100+ tackles and at least 3 sacks. Those numbers aren’t bad at all, especially if Shazier has a monster year. Vince Williams is a guy off the bench that could provide a spark. He’s a solid tackler, and he’s gotten some significant playing time under his belt filling in while Shazier’s been sidelined with injuries the past couple of years. The pair of Timmons and Shazier could arguably be the best duo at inside linebacker in the league, at least compared with teams who also run a 3-4 scheme. The speed, the tackling ability, the coverage ability, and the football IQ is all there. They just have to execute on the field.

At outside linebacker, I’ve projected the pair of Bud Dupree and Jarvis Jones. Both guys are first round draft picks. Dupree’s stock is much higher than Jones’ right now. Dupree is coming off of a solid rookie year where he sacked the quarterback four times while sharing time with Arthur Moats. Jones is coming off of a year where he was awarded the starting job, but ended up losing it to James Harrison, or at least lost a significant amount of snaps. Harrison is getting older, but if utilized correctly and for a certain portion of snaps per game, he can still be affective, and may even show shades of the 2008 Defensive Player of the Year. However, Outside Linebackers coach Joey Porter has already said he wants to get away from the split snaps, or a “platoon,” if you will (Dupree/Moats on the left, and Jones/Harrison on the right). Jones and Dupree are first round picks, and the Steelers are wanting to give them every reason to prove it. Dupree’s stock is much higher than Jones’. Jones’ option for a fifth year was not picked up by the Steelers, meaning he’ll be an unrestricted free agent after this season. If any time was the time for Jones to break out, it’s now. 

At the of the day, I think this is the strongest part of the defense. There’s speed, youth, and experience. They tackle well, they rush the passer well (although, they still need to improve), and they cover well. I expect big years from Shazier and Timmons, and I think Dupree’s sophomore year trumps his rookie campaign. Jones is the big unknown. He lost some weight to try to get a little quicker off the edge. We’ll see if it pays off. The Steelers are known to have great linebackers, and this year, they’ve got a solid group, with potential to be a truly great group.

Preseason Grade: A-

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