Up next in our ongoing series are the linebackers. These guys are the backbone of Dick LeBeau’s legendary 3-4 defense and arguably the engine that makes this whole team go. Linebackers have historically been a strength of the Steelers, particularly outside backers. And while the faces have changed a bit and the ages are getting up there, this group should be a strength of the 2010 Steelers yet again.
James Farrior is back for ninth season wearing the black and gold and will anchor the linebackers. He’s 35 now and at the point where he definitely can’t make the tackles that he used to a few years ago, but he knows the Steelers system better than anybody and has been a leader in the locker room since he arrived. Last year we saw 51 slow down some, however, and I expect that trend to continue. He’s been one of my favorite players for a long time and watching his play slip will be one of the harder story lines to watch in 2010. Farrior is one of those guys who truly bleeds black and gold and I’d love to have him captaining the D for as long as possible.
Even before Farrior’s slip last year, the two most talented linebackers on the roster were on the outside — James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley. You could probably have a pretty good debate over who the better player is at this point, but it doesn’t really matter. Each makes the other better and Harrison’s season full of double teams last year paved the way for Woodley to collect 13.5 sacks. Simply put, you might be able to stop one, but you can’t stop them both. Harrison may have hit his peak, but Woodley will only get better and they should be the best group of outside linebackers in the NFL.
The other two linebackers who will see lots of time are Lawrence Timmons and newcomer Larry Foote. Timmons got his chance to start on the inside last year when Foote, ironically, left the team via free agency. Timmons had a lackluster season in most peoples eyes (56 tackles, 7 sacks), but he was playing on the inside consistently for the first time and battled through some injuries. I think he just needs a bit more seasoning to improve his pursuit and tackling. Foote will help provide some relief for Timmons and he can play on the outside too if needed. He’s getting old but provides some depth that was missing without him last year. I think Foote will make a big difference during the course of a full NFL season.
There are a ton of other linebackers on the roster, but barring a rash of injuries the only other one who will see a lot of time in the regular rotation is Keyaron Fox, who was impressive last year playing ILB during Timmons absence. Fox is an outstanding special teams player who would not look out of place starting a handful of games if need be. All of the other guys — including new draft picks Jason Worlids and Thaddeus Gibson will almost exclusively show up on special teams.
Barring injury, this is yet again an elite group of linebackers. We’re getting down to the wire as far as productive years go with this particular group, but Farrior and Harrison should be able to produce effectively in 2010 and hopefully 2011 as well. Worlids, Timmons, and Woodley must continue to improve and will be counted on to play bigger and bigger roles as time moves on, both in 2010 and beyond.