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Rebuilding A Champion: OLB Depth Not Far Behind Starters

The Pittsburgh Steelers spent much of the time between their last playoff victory and now replenishing their roster in preparation for their next chance to make a push for a championship. Last season showed signs that the team was on its way out of that transitional phase after posting a division-winning 11-5 record following back to back .500 seasons.

Still, the Steelers failed to make it out of the divisional round, and have lost their last three postseason contests, dating back to Super Bowl XLV. They followed up that 2010 run with a 12-4 wildcard campaign that saw a first-round exit, and subsequently failed to return to the playoffs the following two years.

So how close might they be to righting the ship and returning to that place that they have been more than any other franchise—that is, holding up the Lombardi Trophy? One way to attempt to measure that would be to compare how this season’s lineup projects against past teams.

For these purposes, it might be helpful to cite both the 2008 and 2010 teams, which are, respectively, the teams that have claimed their most recent Super Bowl championship and their most recent Super Bowl appearance.

The outside linebacker depth is peculiar this year, and has the potential to be excellent—maybe even better than the starters. And both of them are expected to get a lot of playing time this season, which cannot be said of Super Bowl teams of the past.

Of course, that can be looked at in two ways. The glass half full view is that the backups are potentially high-quality players. The glass half empty view is that the starters are not much better than the backups.

Backing up Jarvis Jones on the right side will be James Harrison, whose background is well-known. Supporting Arthur Moats on the left side is rookie first-round draft pick Bud Dupree, for whom the Steelers have high aspirations down the road.

Harrison and LaMarr Woodley were the starters in 2008. Do you remember who the backups were? You’re really at no fault if you don’t, because they really weren’t important. The starters hardly came off the field. Andre Frazier, Donovan Woods, and Patrick Bailey were the reserve outside linebackers, with Bailey sticking out for special teams, but Lawrence Timmons probably logged more time outside than all three combined.

The dynamic duo was still around in 2010 when the Steelers made it back to the Super Bowl, and the front office recognized the dire need for depth at the position at the time, triple-dipping at linebacker in the draft with Jason Worilds in the first round, Thaddeus Gibson in the fourth, and Stevenson Sylvester in the fifth. Sylvester was targeted to play inside, but when Gibson was released mid-season, he moved over to the outside spot.

The two combined for less than 100 snaps, and only saw the field in mop-up duty in a couple of blowouts. Sylvester never developed into anything, but we know that Worilds eventually developed into a player and a solid starter in his last two seasons.

The belief this year is that the depth at the rush end positions will be more important, and will get more playing time. Harrison is expected to get around 25 snaps per game, and Dupree may see similar numbers by the end of the year. While the top of the depth chart is not as strong, they are hoping to bridge much of that gap with a rotation.

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