Those watching the Steelers opener against Cleveland will be treated to something that never has occurred at Heinz Field and has gone unseen in a generation.
First-round picks from each of the past two Steelers drafts will start the opener on defense for the first time since 1988. Back then it was Aaron Jones as a rookie and Rod Woodson, drafted the previous year.
Jones, who had been listed as a starting defensive end on the depth chart, started at right outside linebacker in a 24-21 victory against the Dallas Cowboys at Three Rivers Stadium. He had a nice debut with a sack, two tackles and two passes broken up. He started 12 games that season but only 11 more over a spotty career that nevertheless lasted nine NFL seasons. Woodson had five tackles at cornerback and would go on to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The new duo of draft picks to open together on defense Sept. 7 are rookie Ryan Shazier at inside linebacker and second-year man Jarvis Jones at right outside linebacker. As it was 26 years ago, the defense is undergoing a transformation, but the Steelers hope for better results — that team lost its next six games and finished 5-11.
“It’s really exciting because I’ve been dreaming about this all my life,” said Shazier, the 15th overall pick in this year’s draft. “My dream was to get to the NFL. One of the stages I got past, so now I’m on to the second challenge, which is the regular season. I’m just ready to get it on.”
Jones, the 17th overall pick in 2013, made his first start in the second game as a rookie and went on to start eight games and play in 14. He did not make any all-rookie teams. He had one sack, six pass breakups and no forced fumbles or recoveries.
He believes he is more prepared for the job this time.
“Basically last year was just myself not knowing what we were doing on defense, struggling with that, struggling to get lined up, which didn’t allow me to play fast,” Jones said. “Now I feel more comfortable this year with what we’re doing and it allows me to play faster and be myself, not think.”
It is the bane of many rookies as they learn Dick LeBeau’s defense and a reason no rookie has started an opener while he was defensive coordinator of the Steelers. The last one to do so was linebacker Kendrell Bell in 2001, when LeBeau was head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals.
Like Bell, Shazier will play the mack inside linebacker position, previously held by Lawrence Timmons, who moves to the buck. He could fall into the same mental quandary Jones found himself in as a rookie, but the Steelers hope his 4.36 speed will help make up for any errors in judgment. He had his best performance against Buffalo in the second preseason game and seemed to bounce back Thursday from a so-so performance in Philadelphia.
“Honestly, I don’t feel a lot of pressure on myself and, the guys, I don’t feel like they put a lot of pressure on me,” Shazier said. “We just go out and work. Nobody says, ‘You’re a rookie, you’re a vet, you do this, you do that.’ We’re all out there just trying to depend on each other and know we’re all out there to make plays.
“I don’t feel like it’s pressure; it’s responsibility.”
Jones also has a big responsibility, playing the top pass-rushing position in the 3-4 defense, and no assignment looms larger for him than the one in the opener against the Browns. He he will go against left tackle Joe Thomas, who made the Pro Bowl in all seven of his NFL seasons.
“I have to go see Joe, man. Joe is a great player. I have to check in for that paycheck right there. It’s a great matchup. I can’t wait.”
Jones got to do it twice as a rookie and had a decent game in the 2013 finale with nine tackles and two pass breakups.
“I started watching film of Joe in January,” Jones said. “He’s one of the best if not the best tackle in the league. Why not watch him? He’s a great player and for me to go against him twice a year is a challenge for me, it’s a challenge for our defense. I’m excited.”
That defense is counting on their two most recent first-round draft choices to help lead them through their transition period into a new era.
It and they start Sept. 7.
The Steelers must reduce their roster from 75 to 53 by 4 p.m. today. … Cornerback B.W. Webb was claimed off waivers, the team said Friday. He was drafted by the Cowboys in the fourth round in 2013 and played in 15 games as a rookie. To make room on the roster, rookie linebacker Jordan Zumwalt was placed on the reserve/injured list.
Ed Bouchette: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @EdBouchette.