This is part 10 in our position-by-position review of the 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers. If you haven’t read the previous installments, please click below:
If you haven’t read Part 1 (offensive tackles), click here.
If you haven’t read Part 2 (guards), click here.
If you haven’t read Part 3 (centers), click here.
If you haven’t read Part 4 (tight ends), click here.
If you haven’t read Part 5 (wide receivers), click here.
If you haven’t read Part 6 (running backs), click here.
If you haven’t read Part 7 (quarterbacks), click here.
If you haven’t read Part 8 (nose tackles), click here.
If you haven’t read Part 9 (defensive ends), click here.
Now we’re going to look at what has typically been the greatest strength of the Steelers’ defense; the linebackers.
Despite having a good year defensively as a team, I believe that the Steelers’ linebackers had a bad season as a whole. And the problems began with……
James Harrison went out with an injury early in the season. He missed the 5th – 8th games of the season. And when he did, it started a downward spiral among the linebackers that lasted the entire season. Inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons was moved to the outside to replace Harrison at outside linebacker, however, he was failed to generate the pressure on the quarterback that Harrison usually brings.
Despite missing 4.5 games, Harrison actually had a very productive season. He had 9 sacks, which was only 1.5 fewer sacks than he had in 2010, and 1 fewer than his 2009 production. And Harrison played in all 16 regular season games during 2009 and 2010.
But Harrison’s play did drop off significantly in a few other areas in which Steelers fans have gotten used to seeing him produce. The most glaring of these was in forced fumbles. Harrison had become famous for producing “strip sacks”. A strip sack is when Harrison sacks the quarterback, but also produces a fumble at the same time. Harrison forced 7 fumbles in 2007 & 2008, 5 in 2009, and 6 in 2010, but he only produced 2 in 2011. That’s a noticeable decline.
Harrison also had no interceptions in 2011, after having 2 in 2010. And he had no passes defensed, after having 5 in 2010.
So while Harrison had a productive season from a tackling standpoint, he wasn’t the overall wrecking machine that Steelers fans have become used to seeing. But perhaps his decline was due to injuries to………
LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison play best with they work in tandem. But that seldom happened in 2011. The two played together only 6 times in 2011. And that fact was reflected in the output of both players.
James Harrison missed 4.5 games in 2011. And when he finally came back from his injury, LaMarr Woodley went down with a hamstring injury.
Woodley missed a full 6 games due to his injury. And he played in 2 games during that stretch, but he looked gimpy in those two games. So it might have been better if he had sat out the two games that he did try to play in. In fact, each time Woodley tried to come back from his injury, he missed the following week’s game. So it’s clear that Woodley kept trying to come back too quickly, and actually re-injured himself. It might have been better for him to wait until he was fully recovered before trying to play.
Woodley got off to a tremendous start in 2011. He had 9 sacks by the eighth game of the season. He was on his way to a 16 sack season. But that’s when he injured his hamstring. And he didn’t make another sack for the rest of the year. None. Not one. Zip. Zilch. Nada.
So it’s obvious that Woodley’s injury slowed him down tremendously. He was basically ineffective after the injury occurred. He had 3 tackles and no sacks during the final 8 games of the season, though he only played in 2 of those games. So for all intents and purposes, Woodley played in only half the season.
Despite being healthy for only 8 games, Woodley had only one fewer sack than he had in 2010. He had only 11 fewer tackles than he has in 2010. So it was clear that Woodley was on his way to the best statistical season of his career, until the hamstring injury rendered him ineffective.
The other player who was impacted by the injuries to Harrison and Woodley was Lawrence Timmons. Timmons was on his way to establishing himself as a superstar at inside linebacker. Timmons had accumulated an amazing 135 tackles in 2010. He was all over the field, and he seemed to be in on every play.
But when James Harrison went down with his injury, the Steelers decided to move Timmons to the outside to replace him. This caused a two-fold problem. Not only was Timmons ineffective at outside linebacker, but Larry Foote didn’t play as well as Lawrence Timmons at inside linebacker. So the Steelers had a decline in performance at two positions instead of one.
Timmons’ tackles declined by over 30%. He also experienced a drop in almost every other statistical category.
So while on paper it looks like Timmons had a bad year in 2011, I think that we have to give him a pass. He moved around to help the team. But there was a key lesson learned. The Steelers need to get solid backups for both Harrison and Woodley. Moving Timmons to the outside proved to be too costly.
Because the Steelers used so many linebackers in 2011, we will continue our analysis of the Steelers’ linebackers in the next installment of this series.