Grooming Linebackers the Steeler Way

Before he became one of the best linebackers in footbaSteelersll, James Harrison was just another Pittsburgh Steelers project, a raw player plucked from practice squad anonymity so confused by the complexities of Dick LeBeau’s defense that he would stop cold in the middle of a play, with no idea where to run as the action continued around him.

Harrison was not alone in his bewilderment. Clark Haggans, who spent eight years with the Steelers before signing with the Arizona Cardinals, said that in his first year after being a fifth-round pick in the 2000 draft, he chose the opposite tack. When he did not know what to do, he blitzed — the team is nicknamed Blitzburgh, after all — hoping that he had guessed right.

“ ‘Oh, I was supposed to cover? My bad,’ ” Haggans says now. “I knew I had to get it right or I’d be gone. Playing there isn’t typical.”

He added: “Around the N.F.L., you play them because of the money you’re giving them. Pittsburgh doesn’t do anything until you know your football.”

For 40 years, Pittsburgh has churned out linebackers as reliably as the old mills forged steel. Jack Lambert’s jersey remains a best seller 21 years after he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and his ferocious play — pummeling quarterbacks, pounding running backs — set the standard for a franchise that will try to win its seventh Super Bowl on Sunday the old-school way, with defense. Lambert and his teammate and fellow Hall of Fame member Jack Ham were both second-round draft picks.

But it is the current iteration of the Steelers that has come close to perfecting the care and feeding of linebackers, unearthing them even in the draft’s late rounds, sometimes changing their positions, keeping plenty of them in the pipeline and then making them sit, marinating in a difficult defense until its details seep in.

It is an approach summed up by the position’s current guru, the Steelers’ linebackers coach, Keith Butler.

“I don’t like rookies,” Butler said in an interview last week. “I don’t trust them. And until I’m comfortable with them, they won’t play. I usually get comfortable with them around their second or third year.”

The Steelers’ regimen makes a mockery of drafting for need and free-agent spending sprees. They have so many linebackers that they are able to let productive veterans go when it is time for their next big contract because there is a younger, often less expensive, version ready to step in.

This season’s group — part of the league’s top-ranked rushing defense (62.8 yards per game allowed) and the league’s leading sack defense (48) — might provide the clearest example of the Steelers’ method for building a seamless unit.

Harrison, who bounced among practice squads and did a stint in N.F.L. Europe, did not start every game until his fifth year, after Joey Porter — groomed the same way, and with seven sacks in his final Steelers season — left for Miami as a free agent.

When Haggans left as a free agent in 2008, LaMarr Woodley, a second-round pick in 2007, stepped in to start and had 11 ½ sacks. Lawrence Timmons was a first-round pick in 2007, but did not become a regular starter until 2009, when he had seven sacks. James Farrior is the lone free agent, and he started immediately after leaving the Jets and signing with the Steelers in 2002.

Only Farrior, at 36, is nearing the end of his career, although his 6 sacks and 80 tackles this season suggest he is not done. But last spring the Steelers drafted three more linebackers, producing a bounty so deep that they were able to waive their fourth-round draft choice, linebacker Thaddeus Gibson, when they had to make room for another defensive lineman.

The Steelers kept another rookie outside linebacker, Jason Worilds, to back up Harrison and Woodley and perhaps to replace one of them someday. Stevenson Sylvester, a rookie taken in the fifth round, is likely to play inside linebacker eventually.

Butler has been the linebackers coach for eight seasons — an eternity by N.F.L. standards, especially considering he has worked for two head coaches — and he looks for two things when studying college linebackers: whether they can run and whether they can hit. Those things, Butler said, he cannot teach.

Then the scouting department looks for flaws — drunken-driving incidents, domestic violence issues, some kind of physical shortcoming. Those players are downgraded on the Steelers’ draft board. If other teams take those players in the draft’s early rounds, it frees other good players to drop to lower rounds, where the Steelers hope to scoop them up.

Sylvester has a flaw that only a football savant can detect. He is straight-legged and high-hipped, Butler said, which limits his ability to change direction. That, Butler suspects, is why he was still available in the fifth round.

“He’s turned out to be pretty good for us,” Butler said. “We don’t hit on all of them, but we hit on enough to help us. People had a problem as to where to fit him. We felt like he could play inside linebacker for us because he had blitzing skills, he can run and he will hit you.”

Posted by: Judy Batista


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