Linebacker U? Penn State deservedly holds the title. The Steelers issue post-graduate degrees, and three more will enroll this weekend.
As often is the case, two arrive as college defensive ends who will be taught to play outside linebacker in the 3-4 defense. They are Jason Worilds, a second-round draft choice from Virginia Tech, and Thaddeus Gibson, a fourth-round pick from Ohio State.
There also is fifth-rounder Stevenson Sylvester, an outside linebacker from Utah who will move inside at first with the Steelers.
That's two linebackers in the team's first four draft picks, three of the first seven. The Steelers also signed an undrafted rookie who will convert from defensive end to outside linebacker, Lindsey Witten of Connecticut.
Their draft selections might suggest the Steelers are desperate for outside linebackers, yet they have three-time Pro Bowler James Harrison, the 2008 defensive player of the year, and newly minted Pro Bowler LaMarr Woodley as starters.
Do the Steelers know something the rest of the football world does not? They know how to find outside linebackers, for sure, and the rookie group this year is no different than how they've done it in the past.
"They are two quality, young, 250-pound-ish men, if you will," coach Mike Tomlin said of Worilds and Gibson. "Of course, we value that here in Pittsburgh. We believe that's a formula for winning football. They are big guys that can run. They love to play the game in a physical manner. We're looking for those guys to contribute in whatever ways that we ask them."
The formula the Steelers have followed for a long time is to draft an undersized 4-3 end and groom him to play outside linebacker, all while he plays special teams.
It worked that way for Woodley, Joey Porter, Jason Gildon, Clark Haggans, Mike Vrabel and more. There were misses along the way: Bruce Davis (third round, 2008), Alonzo Jackson (second, 2003) and the most infamous of all, Huey Richardson (first, 1991), but no position has produced more Steelers Pro Bowlers than linebacker.
The Steelers always are on the lookout for them, particularly outside linebackers. The outside linebackers in the 3-4 drive the pass rush (in a 4-3, the defensive ends are the primary rushers). They have to be stouter than outside linebackers in the 4-3, who mostly cover and play the run. Yet, they have to be able to cover backs, tight ends and the occasional wide receiver in that scheme. Scouts often label them "tweeners" coming out of college, a cross between end and linebacker.
Not so many years ago, the Steelers could find them in the middle rounds (Haggans in the fifth, Porter, Vrabel and Gildon all in the third). But with more defenses playing the 3-4, they have become a more prized commodity, thus Woodley and Worilds were drafted in the second.
Woodley came on more quickly than any of them, but despite his pass-rushing prowess as a rookie in 2007, he was not deemed ready to play the position regularly. It took a few years for the others to move into the starting lineup, and all played well on special teams in the meantime (the red flags went up on Davis early when he did not even play there).
"First and foremost, I hope they are capable of [being] kickoff coverage unit men," Tomlin said of his rookie linebackers. "That would be the first job description that they have. If they can do an adequate job of that, then we'll get to see if they are capable of rushing the passer."
While they have those two Pro Bowlers at outside linebacker, the Steelers always must look ahead because of the developmental time, because it is such a key position to their defense and because a player can lose the crucial quickness at outside linebacker in a flash. Harrison has shown no signs of losing anything, but he turns 32 years old next week, and Woodley would become a free agent next year if he does not sign a contract extension before then. There also is little depth behind them -- or was until the past weekend.
NOTE -- The Steelers signed a ninth rookie free agent, center Bradley Vierling (6-3, 290) of Vanderbilt. He brings their roster to 91.
For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette On the Steelers at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Ed Bouchette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published April 28, 2010 4:00 AM