By Matthew Marczi
For a team facing so much adversity in the past season and heading into the next with a litany of questions to address, it’s natural to consider the issues and how they can either go right or wrong, as well as how they will affect the broader dynamics and future success of the team, both heading into this season and into the future.
Though not statistically true, it is technically true that every team enters the offseason with the potential to finish the year as the league champion or as the first team on the clock in the next draft.
Some teams have a wider realistic range than others, and I think the Pittsburgh Steelers are one of those teams. Think of them as Schrödinger’s franchise; in February, they are both future champions and future owners of the top draft pick.
In order to gain a better feel for not only the issues facing the team this year, but how those issues might play out, it’s useful to take the devil’s advocate approach. This is the optimistic side of the coin.
Question: What kind of performance can be expected from Jarvis Jones in his second season?
Facing the future of the outside linebacker position quickly crumbling before their eyes, the front office jumped at the chance of drafting outside linebacker Jarvis Jones in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft.
They were so eager to get him into the starting lineup that they did so as soon as he was fully recovered from a late preseason chest bruise. Jones started the second week of the season, and stayed in the starting lineup for the next three weeks.
Following a concussion, he was benched until LaMarr Woodley’s injury problems forced Jones back into the lineup, where he finished starting four of the last seven games. While he had inconsistent success against the run, his pass rushing never developed as it was expected, and he finished with just one sack on the year.
But the flaws in Jones’ game are actually quite obvious. For starters, he has to increase both his upper and lower body strength. Jones spoke about being intimately aware of this while the season was going on, so it certainly should be expected that he will be stronger for the 2014 season.
Another issue in his pass rush is the lack of a proper counter move. Too often, Jones settled for a straight speed rush to the outside, which time and again led to the tackle walking him up the arc and out of the play.
This is an issue that did improve somewhat over time, and he did have a bit more success generating pressure later in the season. But he still needs to learn counters. And who better to teach him than Joey Porter?
Jones had a small handful of impressive games against the run, including a career-high nine tackles in the season finale. He has the skill set to play the run and set the edge from the outside linebacker position. He just needs to show it consistently and stick to fundamentals.
It’s important to stress that Jones played far more, and in a far more critical role, than is typically expected of rookies on defense in Pittsburgh. The Steelers wanted to accelerate his progress, and while it should be beneficial in the long run for the playing time he received as a rookie, he still often played like a rookie.
But he’s not a rookie any more. He’ll be going into his second season now knowing what it’s like to not only play in the NFL, but to start in the NFL, and to go up against the top left tackles in the league, like division rival Joe Thomas.
Jones showed flashes of playmaking ability both in the preseason and during the regular season. He batted down two passes in one game last year, for example, and while he didn’t generate any turnovers during the regular season, he forced a fumble, recovered another, and caught and interception that was negated by penalty. As the game slows down for him, we should start to see this playmaking Jarvis Jones on a more regular basis, and the Steelers won’t be able to keep him off the field.