Jason Worilds has big goals for 2014.
Steelers' Mitchell preparing for season
Steelers' Mike Mitchell talks about the upcoming season during OTAs at Heinz Field. (Video by Matt Freed; 6/10/2014
"As many as possible."
And that would be?
"How many [pass rushes] do we get? ... 400!"
A more immediate and realistic goal might be to return to the field with his teammates sometime this week or next, when spring practices end with minicamp. The Steelers privately express little concern that Worilds has not participated in the past six spring practices after injuring his calf in the first one two weeks ago.
Worilds said he could not talk about his injury but did note that, "It's June."
Indeed it is, three months before they start teeing up the football in games that count. Right now, seeing their $9.7 million linebacker standing on the sideline wearing a Steelers ski cap, gloves, sweatpants and a gold muscle shirt does not make them anxious about his availability in September or his ability to get after the quarterback.
Joey Porter knows they need to do more of that.
Porter, now an assistant linebackers coach, is not yet permitted to talk to the media, but, if he were, he surely would be quick to point out that, in his years here and even several years beyond, the Steelers were among the best quarterback maulers in the NFL. It seems not that long ago, yet the Steelers last season ranked 27th in the NFL in sacks per pass play when they managed just 34. They had 37 the year before and 35 the year before that, which makes it very clear that their 27 total last season was far off the 48 they rang up in 2010 or the 51 they registered the most recent season they won a Super Bowl (2008).
Coincidentally, their forced turnovers also have plunged, and they tied for fifth-fewest in the NFL with 20 in 2013.
Worilds, stamped into the starting 2014 lineup at left outside linebacker, wants to help change that.
"Coming off back-to-back 8-8 seasons, that's not what we expect around here. I'm excited to get back to the type of defense that we play."
Or, that they used to play, when they went to their most recent Super Bowl after the 2010 season. Since then, their defense has been more bark than bite. But few players remain from that 2010 defense -- or 2011 or 2012, for that matter.
Worilds is one of them, although he played only bit parts in his first two seasons of 2010 and 2011. He started to come on as a backup and fill-in starter in 2012, when he had five sacks. He emerged as a force last season, although not before first losing his starting job at right outside linebacker to rookie Jarvis Jones after one game.
Once he moved to the left side for the injured LaMarr Woodley, he blossomed. He played so well there that it prompted the Steelers to move Woodley to the right side when he became healthy, then prompted them to move Woodley right off the roster in March.
Worilds led the team with eight sacks and was second to defensive lineman Cam Heyward with 29 quarterback pressures. It was perfect timing, with his improved performance coming in his fourth and final year under contract. He was all set to become an unrestricted free agent when the Steelers slapped him with the transition tag that mandates he be paid $9.7 million this season.
There has been no progress in negotiating a long-term contract, although Worilds said Tuesday he would welcome one.
"Oh, absolutely, that's why it's long-term. You put so much time and effort into it with these guys, you want to be there for the duration of your career. That would be extremely significant."
What would be significant to a revitalized Steelers defense would be for Worilds and Jones to come through at outside linebacker the way others did so well in the past. The Steelers need to put more heat on quarterbacks than they have the past several seasons, and the outside linebacker positions are the two primary pass-rushing spots.
And like Worilds, Jones lost his starting job, too, last season.
Behind them is newcomer Arthur Moats, a free agent from Buffalo, and many others with small resumes.
Worilds could offer no reason why he was more effective on the left side than the right, other than settling in there over the second half of last season.
"I think, at that point of the season, I kind of knew that was where I was going to play. I think it's continuity more than anything."
The one thing the Steelers have had going for them through the years is a ferocious continuity at outside linebacker, until injuries to Woodley and James Harrison, then ineffectiveness took hold the past several seasons.
They need to return to the days when opposing quarterbacks feared those two positions. If not, everything else they do on defense won't matter much.
Ed Bouchette: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @EdBouchette.
First Published June 10, 2014 3:44 PM