Comparing this year to last year, the Pittsburgh Steelers aren’t so far off in 2015 in terms of their pass rushing ability compared to where they were in 2014 heading into the draft. And they didn’t take advantage of the draft to add to their pass rushing ability, either.
They entered the regular season with only three outside linebackers: Jarvis Jones, entering his second year after an underwhelming rookie season; Jason Worilds, entering his fifth year and first as a full-time starter after an impressive back half of the previous season; and Arthur Moats, a bargain free agent signing who had never been asked to be a consistent pass rusher in the past.
The only difference between then and now, other than our accumulated knowledge of said linebackers, is of course the swapping out of Worilds for James Harrison. Harrison played the run better than did Worilds, and he was also more effective as a pass rusher on a per rush basis, even if he finished with two sacks less.
There is another difference, of course—they have a better understanding, now, of a great need at the outside linebacker position. They obviously didn’t know last year that Worilds would retire, but they do know that having Harrison is likely just a one-year stop-gap.
And they have yet to determine if either Jones or Moats could be a consistent starter at outside linebacker, or it they could hold up against the run on the strongside left outside linebacker position, where most teams tend to run with a tight end.
We did learn something about Moats, of course, which is that he can be a fairly effective player in the scheme, at least in a rotation, because he never logged true starter snaps despite starting nine games. Unfortunately, that doesn’t tell us much about how he would hold up under 800-1000 snaps in a season, but it at least suggests that it’s worth trying him out.
Harrison showed that he was still the best outside linebacker on the team a season ago, once he got himself into shape, and proved to hold up well under increased snaps, at least after returning from a knee injury.
It’s not a sure thing that either project well for a move to the right side, however, for different reasons. For Moats, the primary concern would be how he would hold up against the run on the strongside. For Harrison, it’s mainly the fact that he has very few rushes from the left edge in the past eight or so seasons.
Does Jones project as a starter? The coaching staff doesn’t seem entirely convinced, given the open competition mentality with which they are approaching the outside linebacker position. Of course, the vast majority of his sophomore season was wiped out by a wrist injury that saw him attempt to play in a weakened state when he did finally return late in the year.
Thought Jones did record two sacks in his first three games, he generated very little pressure outside of that, so even a desire to project a prorated sack figure based on his early numbers would be misrepresentative of how he actually performed in terms of putting pressure on the quarterback.
It goes without saying, but the Steelers are relying on Jones to develop and become a fixture of the defense. This is as true now as it was two years ago when they drafted him in the first round—they wouldn’t have done so otherwise. But year three was already a pivotal season for him, made all the more pertinent by the way the team has handled the position this offseason, which is a topic I will explore further tomorrow.