The game Sunday was well on its way to joining two others in the Steelers victory total when an otherwise inconsequential play occurred halfway through the fourth quarter.
C.J. Spiller, Buffalo’s 200-pound halfback, went low to block a pass-rushing linebacker to his left. Rookie Jarvis Jones nimbly avoided the weak block and tackled rookie quarterback EJ Manuel for a 7-yard loss.
Twenty years from now, Jones may fondly remember that first NFL sack among his many over a long NFL career. At least, that is what the Steelers had hoped for when they made him the 13th overall pick in the NFL draft in the spring, the first outside linebacker they chose in the first round in 22 years. He registered 28 sacks at Georgia, third most in school history. In 2012, he averaged 1.21 sacks per game.
With the Steelers, he had 16 tackles, four quarterback hurries and no sacks through the first half of the season when he won and then lost the starting right outside linebacker job. Perhaps, just like his team, the second half of the season marked a new beginning.
“I’m not relieved,” Jones said of what for a linebacker was his first score. “I just know I have to continue to work hard, keep believing in myself, continue to sharpen my technique and skill and continue to learn and be a student of the game.
“Hopefully I continue to make those kinds of plays.”
Even though he was a high draft pick, the Steelers would have preferred to bring Jones into their lineup the way they have other rookie outside linebackers. He was the first to win a starting job at outside linebacker since they moved to the 3-4 defense in 1982. LaMarr Woodley, Joey Porter, James Harrison, Greg Lloyd and Jason Gildon each served apprenticeships before they were promoted to start.
But after Harrison declined their final offer of a pay cut and they released him, they felt it better to go with Jones than with veteran Jason Worilds in Harrison’s old spot on the right side. That occurred in the second game and he started four in a row before they went back to Worilds because coach Mike Tomlin said, “He’s just not doing enough detail work right now and Jason Worilds is.”
Worilds, who will become an unrestricted free agent in March if not re-signed before then, continues to start. And he and other teammates got a good laugh out of their rookie’s sack celebration, which amounted to him basically twirling around and punching the air.
“They were laughing about my celebration,” Jones said. “I don’t have one; I didn’t even have one in college. I just usually celebrated with my teammates. They’re the ones who make it happen.”
However it happens, the Steelers would love to see more.
New look on defense
Dick LeBeau has added a new wrinkle to his defense and showed it on several passing downs Sunday against Buffalo. He pulled defensive end Brett Keisel and used three outside linebackers — Jones, Worilds and Woodley.
“It’s a package that coach LeBeau put in, just an opportunity to get the best pass rushers out there on the field to try to get after the quarterback,” Woodley explained. “We ran the package a few times and I think it worked.”
Woodley said they actually tried it the previous week against the New England Patriots but did not use it much in that game. They scrapped it Sunday after Woodley left the game in the third quarter with a calf injury.
The Steelers managed only 13 sacks through the first half of the season, on pace for their fewest in 25 years. One reason may be that teams were throwing far less often than in the past. Through the first half of the season, quarterbacks attempted only 240 passes against the Steelers. That was a pace for 480 passes or the fewest against them since only 463 passes against them during their 6-10 season in 1998.
Still, sacks were down the previous two seasons as well and putting three outside linebackers on the field couldn’t hurt.
“We ran that last week as well,” Woodley said. “The Bills were playing from behind, so you saw that package a little more.”
• The Steelers provided no updates on the three players who left the game Sunday with injuries. Woodley said he would be OK, but the ankle injuries to Ramon Foster and Shamarko Thomas appeared more serious.
• Troy Polamalu is not big on momentum, on changing preparation or practice habits. He said he saw nothing different in practice last week that he sees during any other week of preparation for a game.
“I hate to think we prepared any differently than we have in the past,” he said. “Whether we won or lost last week, I’d hate to think we wouldn’t have a sense of urgency this week. I’ve been here 11 years, I haven’t experienced or done anything differently in face of any other adversity we’ve had.”
• Tomlin’s teams continued a remarkable record that began when Bill Cowher became their coach in 1992. Since then, their record is 147-2-1 in the regular season when they have had a lead of more than 10 points at any time in a game.