The Steelers have prided themselves for years on having outstanding linebackers. But the starting four who currently roam the team's defense rank right up there with any group the team has fielded since the '70s.
It is a heady statement, but when everything is taken into consideration, it's hard to argue against it.
Everything begins and ends with the health of inside linebacker Kendrell Bell. The 2001 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year struggled with an ankle injury last season that forced him to miss four games and severely limited his play in most of the other games. Nevertheless, Bell is a real difference maker on defense and if he can stay healthy this season, the Steelers defense should be much improved.
Bell has ridiculous speed and closes on the ball carrier faster than anyone the league has seen since Junior Seau was in his prime about five years ago. The Steelers will try Bell again this season as a rush end in the dime defense, something he struggled with last year in training camp. Bell is a better pass rusher coming up the middle, where he can pick a lane and then burst through it. However, playing full-time on defense, Bell should record more than 10 sacks this season. He is the player on the team that other offenses fear.
Just behind Bell is outside linebacker Joey Porter, who earned his first Pro Bowl berth last season. Porter is the handyman linebacker on this team, doing a little bit of everything and doing it well. He slides over to middle linebacker in the dime defense, giving up a few sacks in the process. But, as evidenced by his four interceptions last season, Porter is more than adequate in coverage.
Jason Gildon is clearly on the downside of his career, but he is still a solid starter. Gildon is no longer as good dropping into coverage as he once was, but he is not Kevin Greene-bad playing the pass, either. At this point in his career, he is the worst of the four starting linebackers. Yet, any team in the league would find a spot for him to play if they had him.
James Farrior came over from the Jets as a free agent to replace Earl Holmes. Not only did Farrior replace Holmes, he was better than he was. The addition of Farrior gave the Steelers the fastest group of linebackers in the NFL. Now that he has had a full season to learn the defense, Farrior should be even better this season than he was last.
Clark Haggans returns as the team's top backup outside linebacker and had some success playing the rush end position in the dime, finishing last season with 6.5 sacks. But he was a restricted free agent this year and drew very little interest. Even so, he will be unrestricted at the end of this season and will likely sign elsewhere.
The Steelers prepared for that probability by taking Alonzo Jackson in the second round of this year's draft. The former college defensive end is tall and lean in the mold of Gildon and will likely replace him within the next couple of seasons.
Jackson's acquisition should mean the end of Justin Kurpeikis' time with the Steelers. The former Penn State star is a great attitude player, but does not have a lot of ability.
Larry Foote was forced into action last season and it was apparent that he was not quite ready for prime time. Another year of seasoning will do Foote a lot of good and while he lacks good speed, he could be a solid contributor down the line.
The Steelers signed veteran free agent Clint Kriewaldt away from the Detroit Lions - where else? - with the feeling he would help their special teams play. By all accounts, Kreiwaldt is an excellent special teams player. In addition, he can play inside or outside linebacker, which gives the team some flexibility.
James Harrison spent much of last season on the practice squad before being activated late in the season. The former Akron star opened eyes in training camp with his aggressiveness, but needs to be a better student of the game. He could make the team as a special teams player this season.
Rookies Dantonio Burnette and Terrence Robinson will try to win a spot on the practice squad this season.
Final analysis: The return of Haggans was a key, as was the addition of Kriewaldt, who will help replace John Fiala as a leader on the special teams unit - you have to have a couple of veterans out there holding everything together. Playing linebacker is going to be an adjustment for Jackson, but with the starting four so solid, it is tough to give this unit anything but a top grade.
Overall position Grade A.
Grading The Players - Linebackers
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