On the Steelers: Rookies must know their roles in a complex defense



In no particular order, the Steelers could use a nose tackle, inside linebacker, cornerback and safety in the early rounds of the 2014 draft to bolster a defense that has fallen on hard times. For most NFL teams, selecting defensive players in the early rounds of the draft means filling an immediate need. Many first- and second-round draft picks are slotted into starting positions and some develop into impactful players as rookies.

That's not the case with the Steelers, who bring along their defensive draft choices slower than any other NFL team because of a complicated defensive system that takes years to fully comprehend. It has been that way for years under defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, whose playbook has been known to befuddle his own young players as much as the opposition.

Over the past five years, the Steelers have used four first- or second-round draft picks on defensive players, and they played fewer snaps as rookies than almost every other player drafted in the same round that year.

Steelers at Packers
 
Game: Steelers (6-8) at Green Bay Packers (7-6-1), Lambeau Field, Green Bay, Wis.

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In 2009, the Steelers chose defensive end Ziggy Hood with their first-round pick. Hood played 225 snaps, the fewest among first-round picks that season other than Atlanta's Peria Jerry, who sustained a season-ending knee injury in the second week of the season.

In 2010, the Steelers chose outside linebacker Jason Worilds in the second round. Worilds played the third-fewest snaps among all defensive rookies taken in the first two rounds, and the two players who played fewer snaps suffered season-ending injuries. Worilds was active for all but two games as a rookie and played 43 snaps.

In 2011, Cameron Heyward was the Steelers' first-round pick and played 247 snaps, the fewest among all defensive rookies taken in the first round.

Jarvis Jones, the No. 17 overall selection in the first round this year, has been the exception. Jones has played 579 snaps, 10th-most among the 18 defensive rookies.

According to LeBeau, there was not a change of philosophy regarding Jones. LeBeau said Jones simply earned a starting job at the beginning of the season based on his play in training camp even though he was eventually replaced by Worilds, who has blossomed into an effective player in his contract year.

Given his druthers, LeBeau would rather stick to the philosophy that has been in place for years. Until this season, it's a philosophy that has helped the Steelers own one of the league's dominant defenses.

"The formula for us has been to get these guys and let them get assimilated into the defense and watch the veterans run it," LeBeau said. "Invariably, there have been situations where they've had to play and they've always done a pretty good job as Jarvis has done. If I had my choice I'd let him learn from the veterans and let them step into it as they become real comfortable in the defense."

Depth chart logjam

Hood, Worilds and Heyward had unique circumstances that were tied to their playing time. Hood was drafted a few months after the Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII and had Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel in front of him on the depth chart.

The same thing happened to Heyward in 2011. He was drafted a few months after the Steelers played in Super Bowl XLV, and he had Smith, Keisel and Hood ahead of him.

Worilds had to bide his time behind LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison. Woodley was an All-Pro in 2009 and Harrison was still in his prime in 2010.

When the Steelers were one of the top defenses in the NFL and a regular participant in the playoffs, the playing time of young draft picks was an afterthought. It has become more topical this season with the Steelers struggling on defense while a couple of the players who were buried on the depth chart developed into some of the unit's top players.

"Traditionally, the Steelers, they like to have you wait and learn, but it's kind of changed as of late," Worilds said. "Jarvis has the opportunity to learn as he plays. If it was up to me, I would have rather played, for sure. You love the opportunity to get on the field. But things were different for me.

"It's frustrating because you know you probably could have helped. When I was coming up, I was told that no matter what I did -- good or bad, no matter how much I improved -- I wasn't going to see the field. That's kind of discouraging. But you have to take it as an opportunity to better yourself in other ways. That's what I was able to do."

Worilds provides an interesting case study. His progress was deterred by injuries in 2011, but he started seven games that season and three more last season because of injuries to Harrison and Woodley.

Despite being healthy last season, it was not until midway through this season that he became a force. He was beaten out by Jones to start the season at right outside linebacker then replaced Jones in the starting lineup when he struggled.

But Worilds' big break came when Woodley was injured. Worilds has posted a career-high seven sacks and his best performances have taken place in the past five games that he has started on the left side in place of Woodley.

Worilds is set to become an unrestricted free agent in March if he does not sign a long-term contract with the Steelers after the season is over. For the Steelers, that was the risky side to bringing Worilds along at a slow pace.

"It's a complicated system, especially coming in and trying to understand coverage, but the more reps you get the more you tend to pick up," said Worilds, who said he will not discuss his upcoming free agency until the season is over. "The hardest part about it is you don't get the opportunities to better yourself. You're not going to get the reps on game days as a rookie to better yourself. If you play a certain number of reps you expect to get better."

Proof in numbers

The concept of having No. 1 and No. 2 draft choices wait their turn was the same for Woodley when he was a rookie in 2007, just as it was for others who were taken high in the draft since LeBeau returned for his second stint as coordinator in 2004.

Most NFL teams have a need or feel pressure to play their top picks early, but the Steelers have maintained a philosophy of young players learning from their elders.

Many other teams let their rookies learn with on-the-job training. In Heyward's rookie season of 2011, the majority of the other defensive linemen taken in the first round played extensively. J.J. Watt of Houston played 911 snaps; Marcell Dareus of the Bills 750; Phil Taylor of the Browns 742 and Muhammad Wilkerson of the Jets 608.

It took Heyward until this season to play his 600th snap in the NFL. He did not become a full-time starter until the fifth game this season when he replaced Hood in the starting lineup.

"My defensive line draft class, everyone was playing," Heyward said. "All those guys played a lot of plays. You just wait your time. I knew I had to make the most of my opportunity. Even though I was one of the last ones drafted in the first round, I still took it as a big hit that there were 11 defensive linemen drafted before me. So I have something to prove."

Heyward has proven his worth this season. He has been among the team's best defensive players since his insertion into the starting lineup. His contract situation is different from Worilds'. After the season, the Steelers can exercise an option to retain him through 2015 or negotiate a long-term contract with him.

It's only natural to wonder if the Steelers could have received more return on their investment by playing Heyward earlier.

"Of course you want to be out there," Heyward said. "There was no shortage of desire on my part to be out there early. Everyone has a different path. Once you gain experience, you feel more confident. It's a growing process. Everyone grows at a different rate. Everyone learns in different ways. The main thing for me was, once I got out there more and once I started to learn, things really started to click for me."

Heyward doesn't hold any grudges about the way he was brought along, if only because he realizes that playing behind and watching veterans such as Smith and Keisel gave him a valuable perspective.

"Those guys had been here," he said. "Those guys who were taken before me [in the 2011 draft] were going to losing teams that didn't have a lot of guys who were in winning positions. I was fortunate enough to play with guys like Aaron, Brett and Ziggy. I got to learn a lot and I think that will benefit me in the long run."

Jones breaks the mold

Jones became the first rookie outside linebacker to start for the Steelers since they switched to the 3-4 defense in 1982. He only lasted four games as a starter before being replaced by Worilds, but he regained a starting job when Woodley was injured.

"That's been a benefit for me, getting a chance to play and get a feel for it," Jones said. "It's something that will really help me going forward, being able to find out my strengths and weaknesses, things I have to hone in on as the season goes on and into the offseason. Being able to play as a rookie and get a lot of those snaps really gave me a foundation of the things I need to learn so I can be a better player and a more productive player."

Jones does not have a full grasp of the defense, and it shows in his production. He has 33 tackles and just one sack. Woodley has played only three more snaps and has 41 tackles and five sacks. He also was caught out of position a couple of times early in the season that led to big plays for the opposition.

"It just takes time to learn this defense," Jones said. "We do a lot of stuff. It's kind of complex. When you're in college things are simplified for you. In the NFL, coaches give you information, but you really have to do the studying. In the NFL, you have to learn the game of football to be successful. You can't just line up and play."

Steelers secondary coach Carnell Lake played in the same system when he was a player for the Steelers in the late 1980s and 1990s. And as a former college coach, he understands well what rookies go through when they arrive and try to learn the defense.

Lake said when he was an assistant coach at UCLA before being hired by the Steelers the Bruins used only two coverages -- cover 4 and man-to-man. He declined to specify exactly how many coverages the Steelers have in their arsenal, but he said there are several zone coverages, several man-to-man coverages and several coverages with a mixture of zone and man-to-man.

"You come here and you have a little more on your plate," Lake said. "Not only do you have more coverage but you have a new technique to go along with these coverages. So you're learning not only technique and assignment but scheme on top of it."

So if the Steelers do draft another defensive player high in the draft in the spring to address some of their glaring needs don't expect an immediate impact.

Take it from Jones.

"That's the thing that most people don't get looking from the outside," Jones said. "Guys really have to become students of the game to be one of those playmakers. You have to know what's going on. I'm in that phase of learning and trying to become a student of the game."

How recent Steelers first-round picks on defense compared to other first-round picks at their position as rookies in number of snaps played that season: 

2009: Line

Player, Team Snaps

Tyson Jackson, Chiefs 

700

B.J. Raji, Packers

380 

Peria Jerry, Falcons (season-ending injury) 

71

Ziggy Hood, Steelers 

225 

2011: Line

Player, Team  Snaps

Marcell Dareus, Bills 

750
Aldon Smith, 49ers 611
J.J. Watt, Texans 911

Nick Fairley, Lions

274 

Ryan Kerrigan, Redskins

1.056

Corey Liuget, Chargers

461

Adrian Clayborn, Buccaneers

864

Cameron Jordan, Saints

664

Muhammad Wilkerson, Jets

608

Cameron Heyward, Steelers

247

2013: Linebackers

Player, Team

Snaps

Barkevious Mingo Browns 

594

Jarvis Jones, Steelers

579

Bjoern Werner, Colts

271

Alec Ogletree, Rams

927

Source: Pro Football Focus


Ray Fittipaldo: rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com and Twitter @rayfitt1.

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