No position on the Steelers has earned more fame, produced more big plays, visited more Pro Bowls and graced more highlights films than linebacker.
Linebackers were crucial to their 1970s Super Bowl dynasty when two Hall of Famers, Jack Ham and Jack Lambert, played in their 4-3 defense. An abundance of good linebackers prompted them to add one to the lineup when they switched to the 3-4 defense for the 1982 season and never went back. Linebackers fueled their consistently dominating defenses from the 1990s through now.
So how did the Steelers find themselves in such a spot now where linebacker could be their top draft priority? Those three killer reasons: Age, injuries, underperformance.
First, Lawrence Timmons must be excused from that discussion. Timmons had the best season of his six-year career, was the unofficial MVP of the defense and should have made his first Pro Bowl.
Playing the mack inside linebacker with more roaming duties, Timmons was dominant. He led the Steelers with 134 tackles, 20 more than buck inside linebacker Larry Foote, who was second (according to the coaches count). Timmons tied for the team lead with six sacks, led with three interceptions, had 19 quarterback pressures, forced two fumbles and recovered one.
Timmons was everything the Steelers asked him to be when they drafted him No. 1 in 2007. He's only 26 and he's under contract for the next four years.
Foote also had a good year. He had four sacks, 11 pressures, forced two fumbles and recovered two. He calls the defensive plays, taking over that role from his departed buddy James Farrior. Foote is 32 and a free agent, but the Steelers want him back and there's a good chance he will sign a one-year contract.
The disappointment with the Steelers linebackers did not rest on either of those two inside linebackers, both of whom started all 16 games in 2012. That could not be said for the rest of them.
James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley were a tough combination to beat for several seasons. They combined for 27.5 sacks in 2008, 23.5 in 2009, 20.5 in 2010 and 18 in 2011 when both missed significant time to injuries.
Last season, because of injuries and underperformance, they combined for 10, the same number produced by Foote and Timmons, who are not supposed to be the team sack leaders from their inside positions.
Harrison was held back by knee surgery that was curiously delayed until training camp after the issue kept him from participating in most of the spring drills. He missed the first three games and took at least half the season before he returned to form. He started the rest of the 13 games and tied for the sack lead with six.
Woodley was on fire when he had nine sacks through half of the 2011 season, but since then he has been unrecognizable to the former terror on the left side. His second half of the 2011 season was virtually wiped out by hamstring injuries.
Last summer, he was dogged by a groin injury in camp, and while he opened the season by starting four consecutive games, he never approached the kind of play that prompted the Steelers to lavish him with a six-year, $61.5 million contract during the training camp of '11. He is 28.
A hamstring injury knocked him out of the fifth game of last season, then an ankle injury and then another hamstring injury hit later in the season when he missed two games.
Through it all was a lack of production relative to his status as one of the league's premier pass rushers. He had four sacks, 15 quarterback pressures, an interception and a forced fumble and fumble recovery. Ordinary stats.
The Steelers believe that Woodley needs to approach his offseason workouts with more diligence to avoid the kinds of injuries that have dogged him the past two seasons. He still has great pride in what he does, but must understand that he cannot do it if he's constantly hurt, and all of his injuries have been in his legs and usually involve muscles. He needs to specifically work on his hamstring issues because those can linger -- as they have for him -- if not strengthened.
The coaching staff is counting on Harrison and Woodley for 2013. Harrison's $6.57 million salary could be an issue as the team tries to get under the cap, but the coaches would like him back at right outside linebacker.
The Steelers' top backup, Jason Worilds, had five sacks filling in for Woodley in 2012, but the coaches are still not sure if he would be ready for a full-time job yet. Worilds' past two offseasons were limited because of the lockout in 2011 and wrist surgery last year. Linebackers use their hands more than any position other than quarterback and Worilds was hampered by of his weak wrist.
Worilds is a second-round draft pick entering his fourth season and the Steelers still do not know what they have. He will be an unrestricted free agent next year. It's a big season for him coming up, the way the fourth season was big for Keenan Lewis in 2012.
Chris Carter is another young outside linebacker, drafted fifth in 2011, who got an early chance last season when he started the first three games for the injured Harrison. He started because of Worilds' wrist injury. Carter had little impact in those games; he had six tackles and two quarterback pressures. His season ended after those three games because of a severe abdominal injury that placed him on injured reserve. He has good ability, but he needs to get much stronger.
Stevenson Sylvester is the top backup on the inside but he also has been hurt too much. He was a fifth-round pick in 2010 and was impressive in his rookie preseason and early on special teams. However, he is far from someone regarded as Foote's successor as he enters his fourth year as a restricted free agent.
Sean Spence, a third-round draft pick last year, looked every bit as Foote's heir apparent until a knee injury knocked out his rookie year in the preseason. His injury was severe enough that the coaches will not count on him in 2013.
Another linebacker the coaches believe has potential is Marshall McFadden, who spent most of last season on the practice squad.
Entering the 2013 season, the Steelers' linebackers could look the same as they did in 2012, with, they hope, one big improvement -- that their pair of play-making outside starters stay healthy.
First Published February 17, 2013 5:00 AM