The Pittsburgh Steelers’ second consecutive season of 8-8 sent up a flare to general manager Kevin Colbert — find faster, younger talent or another mediocre (or worse) year awaits in 2014.
The Steelers defense let go of seasoned talented like LaMarr Woodley, Brett Keisel, Ryan Clark, Ziggy Hood and Larry Foote. They went through the draft and free agency to revamp, adding rookies Ryan Shazier, Stephon Tuitt, and younger free agents like Cam Thomas and Mike Mitchell.
Will it help to improve a defense ranked 25th in sacks and 21st against the run?
Unless inside linebacker Shazier fails to learn the playbook, he should bring speed and talent to a position they struggled to fill last season. By all indications, Shazier already appears to be an upgrade over the 2013 starters: inside linebackers Vince Williams and Terence Garvin. Williams can tackle but lacks speed. And Garvin is more suited for special teams than starting ILB.
Shazier has ball skills more similar to the Steelers other ILB of 2013: Troy Polamalu. At 6-foot-2 he can cover a tight end, tracks the ball well, is a solid tackler and has 4.4 speed to make up for rookie mistakes.
Interestingly Shazier will not play the “Buck” ILB as Williams/Garvin/Polamalu did in ’13. Shazier will be play the “Mack” ILB. This decision will move the Steelers’ best linebacker, Lawrence Timmons, out of the spot he has started in since 2008.
The Steelers anticipated this position change when they drafted Sean Spence in 2012 out of Miami (Fla.). Due to Spence’s injuries, Timmons’ move to the “Buck” was delayed.
Timmons obviously made the best of it, leading the team in tackles last year (126) and ranking second in tackles 2012 (106). He also recorded three of the Steelers’ few sacks in 2013.
Outside linebackers have been the main pass rushers in the Steelers’ defense. Pittsburgh’s top 2013 pass rusher, Jason Worilds, led the Steelers last season with eight sacks. Not exactly impressive numbers compared to past Steeler OLB stars (Woodley – 13.5 sacks in 2009; James Harrison – 18 sacks in 2008).
Worilds and 2013 first rounder Jarvis Jones hope to improve the OLB sack output in 2014. Jones had only one sack in 2013 and must find more ways to get to the quarterback in order for the switch from veterans to youth to work.
To return to the NFL elite, the Steelers’ changes at linebacker must upgrade the defense.