Worilds of Difference Expected

The Steelers are minus three starters from a season ago, but the defensive questions as they relate to the starting 11 mostly revolve around just one guy.

And that guy isn't Cortez Allen or Steve McLendon.

"James (Harrison) and ‘Hamp' (Casey Hampton), those guys were here for a long time, a big reason why we were able to add to the Lombardi room upstairs," Brett Keisel said this spring. "Their presence is going to be missed. But it's an opportunity, and these guys like Jason (Worilds) and Steve, that's what they've got, an opportunity. They have big shoes to fill, but obviously (the coaches) feel like they can carry the load."

Keisel didn't even address Allen taking over for Keenan Lewis at cornerback, probably because the faith in Allen's ability is widespread on the South Side, and because Lewis' breakout season as a starter last season was so surprising.

There's also widespread optimism regarding McLendon taking over on the nose, but Hampton was so good and so important for so long that his successor simply cannot be rubber-stamped as the next big thing in the middle.

McLendon, like Allen, has shown some nice flashes in relatively limited action, but both are going to have to establish that they're consistently up to the challenge.

Worilds is going to have to first prove that he's worthy as a replacement for James Harrison, and then prove it on a week-to-week basis. And Worilds has yet to do either in three seasons with the Steelers.

His career to this juncture has been characterized mostly by either injury, indifference or both. Worilds has also shown some nice flashes with 8 sacks in 10 career starts.

But even as he was flashing last season, he was likewise exasperating. Worilds had 5 of his sacks in 2012, but accounted for just 4 special-teams tackles.

He gets first shot at Harrison's job not because Worilds has established through his search-and-destroy play in the kicking game that the Steelers simply have to get him on the field somewhere, but because he's the best option available at present.

Of course, that situation is subject to change after the drafting of Jarvis Jones in the first round in April.

Off-the-record expectations expressed during the spring sessions assessed that upcoming position battle thusly:

* If Worilds consistently plays the way the Steelers believe he's capable of playing, he'll start all season.

* If Worilds plays the way he has in his first three seasons, Jones will be starting after the bye week.

The examples established by two of Worilds' teammates last season could prove influential, providing Worilds has been paying attention.

Lewis was in pretty much the same position last season, that of an underachiever who had yet to live up to the post-draft hype and expectation entering the last year of his contract. But Lewis embraced the opportunity that came his way and played well enough to get paid.

And Harrison didn't become a full-time starter until 2007, his fourth full season with the team and the season in which linebackers Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley had been drafted in the first and second rounds.

That latter example has been relayed to Worilds repeatedly by Larry Foote.

"I told him I remember when Joey Porter left and they went out and drafted Lawrence Timmons," Foote said. "Initially, they drafted him to be an outside linebacker. They overlooked James Harrison. They didn't know what he could do, he hadn't played that much.

"James stepped in that first year and took off and he wasn't looking back. I told (Worilds), ‘That's gotta be your same approach.'"

That's gotta be Worilds' approach because Harrison has to be replaced by someone, and because that has to happen before Woodley can become Woodley once again after amassing one fewer sack (four) than Worilds in 2012.

Other than all of that, it's business as usual for the Steelers at outside linebacker.

A Worilds of difference, indeed.

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