Linebackers making splash plays in the Steelers defense is nothing new, although difficult to do on the first day of no-pads, non-contact spring practice.
Yet in their own special way, three linebackers did just that Tuesday:
• Going against his own history, coach Mike Tomlin lined up rookie Ryan Shazier, their first-round draft pick, with the first defense at inside linebacker, bumping incumbent starter Vince Williams to do so.
• There have been no productive talks between the Steelers and Jason Worilds on a long-term contract, and it appears he will play under the one-year, $9,754,000 transition tag that he signed and is guaranteed for 2014.
• The Steelers wanted Jarvis Jones to get stronger, and their first-round draft pick in 2013 said he has done just that. But he has not gotten bigger. He weighs 245 pounds, just like he did last season.
• What it all means 3½ months before they play football for real is open to conjecture, but a) Worilds should be motivated to play at a high level if for no other reason than he can become an unrestricted free agent next year; b) Tomlin, who always would start out with the incumbent no matter what rookie were behind him, is serious about moving on to the next generation; c) Plenty is riding on Jones to be the next Joey Porter, now his coaching mentor, at right outside linebacker.
If Shazier starts at the mack inside linebacker, it would give the Steelers three first-round draft picks (including Lawrence Timmons) and a second-rounder (Worilds) in their starting four. No rookie has started an opener on the Steelers defense since Kendrell Bell at the mack in 2001. Shazier is not ready to predict he will snap that streak.
“I’m not going to say that. You still got to work for everything you have and go out there just like everyone else.”
He did, however, enjoy mixing it up with center Maurkice Pouncey.
“The older guys like to play rough,” Shazier said.
Jones did not start in the opener last year, but he came close. Worilds started the first game of 2013 on the right side, then the coaches promoted Jones over him for the next four games. Jones was largely ineffective and was benched, although he wound up starting eight games. He had just one sack, displayed some quickness and burst and an ability to bat down passes.
His coaches stressed that he needed to get stronger in the offseason. They also hired Porter, their former Pro Bowler at the position, to tutor him as an extra linebackers coach.
Porter has taken Jones under his wing.
“He doesn’t let us miss anything.” Jones said.
Porter told Jones that “It’s all about taking care of business. If you want to be great, you have to put in the work to be great.”
“I’m glad I have someone like Joey to push me and motivate me and keep me working,” Jones said. ‘I’m self-motivated, but a guy like him who played here and knows what it takes, a Pro Bowler and Super Bowl winner, to actually play the same side and everything … is a blessing.”
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Jones started working out in January in Georgia with fellow former Georgia Bulldog Justin Houston, a two-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker for Kansas City. Once Steelers coaches were permitted to supervise players in April, he returned to Pittsburgh to work out under Porter and strength coach Garrett Giemont.
“I got stronger,” Jones declared. “As far as my weight, when I talked to Joey and the coaching staff, they really don’t want me to put on a lot of weight. They don’t want me to lose my intangibles, my quickness and everything. It’s just pretty much about getting stronger. I have been getting stronger.”
Porter has been showing Jones the fine art of using assets other than strength to beat the tackles on the outside, too.
“If I get you on the technique or leverage, no matter how strong I am or you are, I’m going to win,” Jones stressed.
The Steelers can only hope all that is true. While they may have a star-studded starting foursome by resume, they do not have such depth. If Jones and/or Worilds are hurt or falter, next up would be Arthur Moats, signed from Buffalo in free agency, and Chris Carter.
Tomlin might be showing plenty of faith in Shazier by tossing him in with the first team on his first day, but he has to count on Jones, who says he has only one goal.
“I just want to go out there and ball-out,” Jones said. “It’s a team thing, not my own thing. I want to show the world I can play football.”
Ryan Petrovich of the Post-Gazette contributed to this story.