With a T-minus five days left until the Pittsburgh Steelers kick off the 2013 season against the Tennessee Titans, the team has finally declared a winner in a couple of the preseason’s key position battles. Jason Worilds inherits James Harrison‘s old spot at outside linebacker. Meanwhile, Isaac Redman will be the Black and Gold’s featured back, at least until rookie Le’Veon Bell can work himself back from injury.
Neither of these developments are particularly surprising.
Worilds had an abysmal second preseason game and looked ready to be usurped by first round pick Jarvis Jones but he rebounded strongly in the pivotal third game. I knew Jones quest to be the rare rookie who starts in Dick LeBeau‘s complicated defense – even a player as gifted as Troy Polmalu didn’t start until his second year – was doomed when I saw Worilds dropping back to defend passes in coverage. For the zone blitz to be effective, LeBeau needs versatile linebackers who can play sideline to sideline as well as get after the quarterback. Jones is going to be a gem but right now he’s limited to being pointed towards the quarterback and told “sick ’em.”
With that in mind, I expected Jones to see plenty of snaps in obvious passing situations. One hopes the Steelers learned a lesson from LaMarr Woodley‘s rookie season back in 2007. Clark Haggans started that year and the team struggled to generate sacks because Haggans was such a non-factor that teams could afford to double team Harrison. Now Woodley is the man quarterbacks fear – even more so since he came into came in shape looking to atone for last year’s debacle – while Worilds will be the guy charged with protecting him.
Problem is, Worilds has never shown himself to be an effective pass rusher. He had 5 sacks last season, a career high, but if you watch them back you’ll see nearly every one was due to scheme. It doesn’t take much talent to sack a quarterback when you fool the other team into allowing your linebacker a free run at the passer. The difference between an average linebacker and a good-to-great one is the ability to get to the quarterback even when you’re being blocked (or, in Harrison’s case, double-teamed). Worilds doesn’t have that. All indications are Jones does. So if the team wants to avoid a repeat of the Harrison/Haggans situation, they need to make sure Jones gets plenty of snaps.
Elsewhere, Isaac Redman has been named starting running back. Redman received a stinger-pinched nerve in his shoulder during practice and missed the final three preseason games. He told reporters he could’ve returned for at least one of the last two except the coaches held him back just in case. I’m obviously not the world’s biggest Redman fan – he’s fine as Redzone, the guy they call on in short yardage situations – but he’s not a featured back. His running style of “get the ball, run straight ahead” doesn’t lend itself to big enough gains to keep the chains moving consistently.
Redman will rotate with the three other healthy running backs although how time will be split is anybody’s guess. LaRod Stephens-Howling got a surprising number of carries during the preseason but I think he’ll be limited to Mewelde Moore Memorial third down role. The Steelers liked what they saw from Felix Jones – liked it so much they cut Jonathan Dwyer – so he’ll probably get the majority of the carries in relief of Redman. Jones and LSH will also share kickoff return duty.
I would complain about the unholy two-headed running monster known as iLex Redbones but much like Worilds days as a starter the situation is only temporary. Le’Veon Bell will be the team’s primary back just as soon as he recovers from his Lisfranc injury. The news continues to be positive on that front as he’s out of his walking boot and already telling reporters he’s targeting week two for his return. Let’s hope for once a Steelers injury report proves true.