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Next Generation

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Many armchair GMs were left scratching their heads when the Steelers selected linebacker Jason Worilds in the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft followed by a second linebacker, Thaddeus Gibson, in the fourth round, and then another in the fifth round, this time the speedy Stevenson Sylvester.

It wasn’t an issue with quality, just quantity.

On a team that could have used some reinforcements in the trenches, perhaps a young talent to groom behind an aging defensive line, or a cornerback to augment a positional group that combined for just one interception in sixteen games last season, the selection of three linebackers seemed like luxury spending. This was, of course, a linebacking corps that combined for four pro bowl selections in the last two years and features one of the most potent pass-rushing duos in the league in LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison, the 2008 Defensive Player of the Year.

It may seem strange at first, but drafting for the future is really what the Steelers have been doing for years. A player arrives, learns his craft, and then cashes in on his opportunity. Pittsburgh and GM Kevin Colbert are always looking for the next great player to join the Steelers linebacking corps, a group that has featured players like Hall-of-Famers Jack Ham and Jack Lambert; the 90’s Blitzburgh unit of Kevin Greene, Levon Kirkland, Chad Brown, and Greg Lloyd; and more recent stars in Joey Porter and James Harrison. That impressive history isn’t lost on Jason Worilds.

“As a linebacker or even as a pass rusher, you can’t ask for more than to be in the lineage of Pittsburgh’s linebackers,” said Worilds, who exhibited the type of explosiveness in his workouts that could make him dangerous when attacking the quarterback.

Worilds, at 6’2” and about 260 pounds, spearheads a trio that likely won’t have an immediate impact on defense as they learn and mature behind some more experienced star players.

“I’ve never started a rookie linebacker, inside or outside,” explained Keith Butler, who has served as Pittsburgh’s linebackers coach since 2003. “I don’t think you can do a lot of thinking when you’re trying to play linebacker. I think you gotta know it. It’s gotta be intuitive for you in a lot of ways and I don’t think they’re at that point. We want to be able to play without holding back. The only you can do that is to know what you’re doing. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re a half-second late in the way you react to what you see and a half-second is too long.”

The last linebacker to see significant action as a rookie was Kendrell Bell, who was the NFL’s rookie of the year in 2001. Players like current-starters LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons didn’t see significant action until their sophomore seasons. Former-Steeler Clark Haggans wasn’t a regular starter until his fifth season. Coach Butler believes it’s because there is a much steeper learning curve for a linebacker in Pittsburgh than there is for a linebacker of another NFL team.

“It’s tough for these guys to come in and learn this defense,” said Butler. “It’s fairly complex in comparison to college.” Another hurdle is that a number of Pittsburgh’s pass rushers are converted defensive ends and, as such, need to learn how to react in new positions and how to handle coverage responsibilities as a linebacker. Two of the three rookies, Worilds and Gibson, were defensive ends in college.

Butler isn’t the only mentor for the new linebackers though, as there is a lot to be gained learning from the team’s current starters. Fifth-rounder Stevenson Sylvester, who has earned the nickname “Sly,” says the men ahead of him have taught him “just about everything. Technique, how to learn, how to watch film, how to approach the games, how they’re having fun with it, when to be serious and when things need to be turned down.”

Sly, an inside linebacker in the pros, has also learned which path he needs to take to gain the trust and favor of the coaching staff: special teams. It’s no coincidence that these three linebackers have the type of physical attributes head coach Mike Tomlin likes for special teams work. It’s also no coincidence that the trio arrives a year after the Steelers coverage units were gashed for big returns and crucial, game-changing touchdowns.

Both Sylvester, who has already forced a fumble on special teams this season, and Jason Worilds have earned their hats on special teams. The third linebacker, Thaddeus Gibson, has been an odd man out after a late start in the offseason.

“Thaddeus Gibson missed a lot of our OTAs because of his college situation at Ohio State,” said Butler. Ohio State’s graduation day is much later than most other colleges, resulting in a late start for the fourth-round rookie. “Right now, he’s still behind but he’s trying to catch up and we’re trying to do our best to bring him along.”

He’ll have the time to catch up thanks to the usual develop-and-serve plan in Pittsburgh. All three rookies have shown some flashes of talent in training camp and preseason, but they’re players for the future, not the present. With this trio, the future should be in great hands.

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