Over the course of the past couple of years, the Pittsburgh Steelers have undergone an uncommon amount of change, which could have been largely correlated with the fact that the team had finished 8-8 in consecutive seasons while failing to advance to the postseason.
In deference to general manager Kevin Colbert, the attitude used to approach the offseason in those years was that this was an 8-8 team and these were 8-8 players. It’s little surprise that a lot of things changed during those years.
One key change that the Steelers are really looking forward to this season, however, must be discovering some stability at the inside linebacker position, and by extension within the ‘triangle’ that is the heart of the 3-4 defense, made up of the two inside linebackers coupled with the nose tackle.
The Steelers were fortunate to have a great deal of stability through much of Dick LeBeau’s tenure as defensive coordinator, as he had at his disposal the two veterans, James Farrior and Larry Foote for the longest time. When Foote gave way to Lawrence Timmons, he then became a mainstay.
Over the past couple of seasons, however, that stability has been hard to come by, at least outside of Timmons’ snap count. It began in the season opener of the 2013 season when Foote suffered a season-ending injury.
That thrust the team into a season-long experiment involving first Kion Wilson, then rookie Vince Williams, and a heavy amount of six defensive backs on the field. The instability around him took some toll on Timmons’ performance.
Last season, the Steelers drafted what they believed would be a plug-and-play starter to shift into the mack linebacker spot, and, as far as we know, they were only proven wrong due to injury, as first-rounder Ryan Shazier would go on to miss about half of his rookie season with a pair of injuries.
With Timmons in the meantime trying to fully adjust to the buck position and calling the defense, the Steelers, in Shazier’s absence, turned to a rotation using Williams in sub-packages, with Sean Spence, finally healthy, in the base defense.
It was only late in the season when Shazier began to get some of his snaps back, even if he was unable to reclaim his starting spot by the end of the year. However, he is back in his familiar place this spring, and the hope is that will do wonders for the health of the defense.
Having a stable interior triangle, particularly at the linebacker spots with the proliferation of sub-package defense, is crucial, and it’s something that the Steelers have lacked of late. I think it’s reasonable to speculate that Timmons has had to compensate for the chaos around him some the past two years.
The hope and expectation is that he and Shazier will be able to become as much of a force as the pair of Farrior and Foote were back in the day. With a clean bill of health, a better grip on the defense, and experience working together, it seems a reasonable assumption that they will be successful.