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Steelers Training Camp Preview: Linebackers

July 26, 2009 By: Admin Category: Draft/Free Agency, Players

July 25, 2009
By Donald Starver

This is part 2 in a series.  In part 1 of our Pittsburgh Steelers 2009 Training Camp Preview, we took a look at the defensive line.  We looked at all of the defensive linemen who will be in camp, and gave our picks of who would make the final roster.

In this installment, we are going to take a look at one of the most important positions in Dick LeBeau’s 3-4 defense; the linebackers.

This may be a blasphemous thing to say, but the Steelers’ 2008 linebackers may have been the best in team history.  My apologies to Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, Andy Russell, Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Levon Kirkland, Mike Merriweather, Jason Gildon, and Joey Porter.  They were all great in their time with the Steelers.  But in what they did both collectively and individually, the 2008 linebackers reigns supreme.

As good as the 2008 linebackers were, the 2009 version may be even better.  Larry Foote is gone, and his starting position will be filled by the younger, faster Lawrence Timmons.  Pro Bowler James Farrior remains ageless,  Lamar Woodley is an emerging superstar, and James Harrison is NFL Defensive Player of the Year.  Did I mention that these guys are pretty good?

So, how do you improve upon perfection?  The answer is, “you don’t”.  As the saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.  That’s pretty much the approach that the Steelers took this off-season.  They didn’t draft any linebackers this year, and they only signed 2 undrafted free agent linebackers.  They’re pretty much going with the same guys they had last year.  Probably not a bad strategy.

In the two years that Mike Tomlin has been coach of the Steelers, he has always carried 9 linebackers on the roster.  Therefore, it is pretty likely that he is going to come out of training camp with 9 linebackers.  Let’s see if we can figure out who they’re going to be.

James Harrison - What more can we say about James Harrison?  101 tackles.  16 sacks.  NFL Defensive Player of the Year.  Could have easily been MVP of the Super Bowl after his 100 yard interception return.  I don’t think anyone is taking his job.  Do you?


LaMarr Woodley - In his second season in the NFL, and his first as a starter, LaMarr Woodley blossomed into an emerging star.  Not many first-time starters get 11.5 sacks.  But that is exactly what LaMarr Woodley did.  Yeah, I think his job is safe too.

James Farrior - Another Pro Bowl season for the ageless wonder.  Aside from being the defensive captain, he had an amazing 133 tackles.  Other players get older.  Farrior gets better.  I think it’s safe to say that he is going to make the team.

Lawrence Timmons - It isn’t very often that a substitute player records more tackles and more sacks than the starter that he is substituting for.    But that’s exactly what Lawrence Timmons did last year.  He recorded 65 tackles versus Larry Foote’s 63, and 5 sacks versus 1.5 for Foote.  Timmons should record even better numbers as a starter.  Yup, his roster spot is safe too.


Keyaron Fox - Fox was a special teams ace last season.  With Mike Tomlin’s emphasis on special teams, that is enough to assure Fox’s roster spot.  But with Lawrence Timmons becoming a starter, Fox will also emerge as the top substitute at inside linebacker.

Patrick Bailey - Another special teams ace, Bailey beat out Rashard Mendenhall, Bruce Davis, Limas Sweed, Tony Hills, and the rest of the 2008 rookies for Rookie of the Year honors.  That accomplishment alone should secure his roster spot.

Bruce Davis - I was a big fan of Bruce Davis when he came out of UCLA.  Unfortunately, he was slow making the transition from defensive end to linebacker.  Moreover, he didn’t show a passion for special teams, and made almost no impact there either.  He is a big, strong kid who really is very good at getting to the passer.  If he can show the Steelers’ coaches the player that I saw in college, he could emerge as the top back-up at outside linebacker.  I think his roster spot is safe.

Andre Frazier - The biggest of the Steelers inside linebackers, he has yet to truly distinguish himself as a playmaker.  He should be able to hold onto his roster spot, because other players are a bit more vulnerable.  However, it would be great to see Frazier make his presence known this season.

Arnold Harrison - After injuring his ACL, Harrison ended the season on injured reserve.  It is unclear how well his recovery from ACL surgery will go.  He is probably the most vulnerable of last year’s linebackers due to the injury.  Additionally, he is primarily an outside linebacker where he will have lots of competition.  I don’t expect Harrison to make the team.

Donovan Woods - The second year player was activated a few times last year due to injury.  But for the most part, we got to see very little of him.  He will be helped by the fact that he is primarily an inside linebacker, where there is less competition.

Tom Korte - The odds of a 5’11″ linebacker from tiny Hillsdale college making the roster of the reigning world champions are infinitesimal.  Sure, James Harrison is essentially the same height as Korte, but Harrison is from the planet Krypton.  Keep as many training camp souvenirs as you can Tom.  Otherwise your friends will never believe that, for a brief time, you were a Pittsburgh Steeler.

Andrew Schantz - I have never seen the rookie from Portland State play.  However, Portland State is a quality program that has placed a linebacker in the NFL each of the past 2 years.  Schantz was the MVP of the Portland State squad, as well as second team All-Big Sky Conference.  If he plays well in camp, particularly on special teams, Schantz could battle  Donovan Woods, and Arnold Harrison for the final roster spot among the linebackers.

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18 Comments to “Steelers Training Camp Preview: Linebackers”

  1. Rob Sprague says:

    Good analysis of the linbackers. A bit blasphemous, but a good job. I don’t think you could say that anyone could be better than what the LB’s of the 70′s were. But this team does have a great group and could be considered in the same conversation. Time will tell.
    I think the group is a bit weak on depth. I do like Frazier and A. Harrison as back-ups. They have filled in nicely in spots. Not sure about the others. I thought Davis would have made a bigger contribution last year. Maybe he will with a year under his belt or maybe he will be a bust. I think they have enough depth if they lose a guy or two for a short period, but if they lose someone for the season that could be a big problem. Again, great job of analysis and I think one thing - it is all about the starting four for the Steelers this year. If they stay healthy, this defense could be better than last year. They are beasts.

  2. Thanks, Rob. I acknowledged that it was blasphemous. But the sack totals that LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison accumulated were unprecedented.

    I think this year’s group may achieve even greater numbers. The addition of Lawrence Timmons should be significant.

    I have great hopes for the current group of linebackers. However, I do agree that the backups are not particularly strong.

  3. Blasphemy aside, It was a very good analysis.The depth at the most important defensive positions is a bit worrisome.I believe Davis will show a little more than just “promise” this season and Bailey could be a big surprise too. I agree with the writer, this crop of starters should be even better than last years. At least statistically

  4. Of all things to look forward to this year, it’s Lawrence Timmons joining (full-time) Harrison and Woodley out there. Once thing I noticed during Silverback’s INT TD in the SB was Timmons’ seemingly effortlessly running in front of everyone..and clearing a path.

    The LB’s this year will be phenomenal. GO STILLERS!!

  5. Thanks Mark, I appreciate the compliment. It is always good to know that people get something out of my analysis.

    While I think the Steelers’ linebackers are going to be great this year, you are absolutely right about the depth being worrisome. I don’t think we can afford to lose any of the starters. Particularly the starters on the outside (Harrison and Woodley). There is a huge dropoff between the starter and backup at all of the LB positions.

  6. Andy,
    I am extremely excited about Lawrence Timmons joining the starting unit. He is going to be great. Heck, he got 5 sacks last year as a part-time player. Hopefully, he’ll get 10+ as a starter.

  7. I really think this pre-season schedule should give LB’s like Davis and Bailey a chance to show they can not only get to the QB when asked, but drop into the assorted coverages that are also a HUGE part of this complex but very effective defense. Every Steeler must be playing with a extreme confidence after last years run!

  8. I think Donovon Woods will be the backup to surprise this year. He and Fox will be the reserves at ILB we are worried about finding.

  9. Sit tight and watch Tom Korte. There is a reason why the Steeler’s signed him to a (2) year rookie contract. He’s been consistently measured at 6/ft tall and as far as size, Harrison couldn’t possibly be much bigger (or faster).
    Korte also possess an extremely high “football IQ.” Although he lacks very little physically, he understands the game of football in a way that gives him an edge against his opponents. I’m not suggesting that Pittsburgh doesn’t have smart players, of course they do. I’m saying that Korte will be right up there with them.
    You know as well as I do that it’s what Korte does on the field that counts. However, don’t be surprised when I tell you “I told you so”

  10. I think Donovon Woods will be the next great LBer to work his way into the Steelers line after Farrior retires. He is a tremendous athelete. He will easily become a fan favorite.

  11. I second what aktow said about Tom Korte.

  12. Tommy Korte was a freshman my senior year so I know the kid pretty well and I think he will surprise a lot of people. I also played against Nate Washington in college and he went from long shot to SB champion with the Steelers after they jettisoned a key player. Don’t count the kid out.

  13. Don’t count out Tom Korte. He could be the surprise to watch for this camp. May not be the biggest or fastest, but his run and pass reads are among the best with the elite linebackers.

  14. The Bus,
    I will keep my eyes open for Korte. If he makes the team, then I will remember that you called it first.

  15. Charger,
    Thanks for sharing your perspective on Korte. A few others have chimed in on his behalf as well.

    I am definitely not counting him out. I have learned that with the Steelers, everybody gets a fair shot. Remember, James Harrison and Willie Parker were brought in as free agents, and they have both been to the Pro Bowl.

  16. Looks like your initial assessment of Tom Korte from “tiny Hillsdale College”, may have been a bit off the mark. Playing in only a few series and a small handful of special team plays, Tom’s impact was still felt in the second pre-season game.
    With the interception of Washington Redskin, Chase Daniel’s, (from a big school, Missouri) in the fourth quarter, Tom gave the team a chance to win the game. If there is one thing that says a lot about this young group of linebackers vying for a roster spot, is that with the departure of veteran Larry Foote, the front office decided not to bring in some other crafty vet. to take his place. There is definitely something to these spring training rookie linebackers, that is they are very talented no matter how big or small the school they may have come from.

  17. Steelfan,
    Korte definitely had a nice performance last night. I still don’t think that he has much of a chance of making the team, but he certainly made the coaches pay attention last night.

    Personally, I love rooting for the underdog. I hope Korte does make the team, because that will mean that he worked his butt off and forced the coaches to keep him. It’s that attitude that Steeler fans gravitate to.

    If there is one team where the undrafted free agent has a chance, it’s the Steelers. After all, James Harrison and Willie Parker have both been to the Pro Bowl, and they were each undrafted.

  18. Dan Maloney says:

    Respectfully, pal…but How old are you?
    James Harrison better than Jack Lambert are you BLIND? Night and day PAL.Greg LLoyd,Jack Ham both far better than Harrison.
    Wake up man…Lambert dominated,plugged holes and played behind legends.
    Harrison?Was he not cut twice by NFL teams?


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