Best linebackers in the NFL?

<b>LATROBE –</b> It's probably the giddiness over being out of Cincinnati that had Buffalo linebacker Takeo Spikes talking nonsensically last week. Here's what Spikes had to say about his new linebacker friends:

"I think this is the best linebacking corps in the league. Print it, fax it, write it, photocopy it. This is where it's at. I'm dead-up serious. When the dust settles at the end of the season going into the playoffs, then everybody will see."

In the last two years, the Bills have brought in a new linebacking corps. Spikes and Jeff Posey, formerly of Houston, are the outside backers and London Fletcher, formerly of St. Louis, is the middle linebacker.

It's a fine group, but one that would seemingly lag behind the all-star unit the Steelers have put together over the years. Yet, the responses of the Steelers' linebackers were interesting.

"It's no harm by me," said Kendrell Bell. "I don't take nothing personal by it. We play well together. He may feel he plays well together with his new teammates. That's just the way guys feel. You can't come into this league thinking you're going to suck or you're going to suck."

And the Steelers' linebackers?

"I think the best of us," Bell said. "I think we can go out and do anything we want to do."

Joey Porter responded to the question with a question.

"He is a linebacker isn't he?" Porter asked of Spikes. "I mean, they never say they're not the best. He has a right to say it. He has his opinion and we have ours. We feel we've got four Pro Bowl linebackers. Three of them have been to the Pro Bowl and one was cheated the year he had 200 tackles. That's usually a pretty good year."

James Farrior didn't go to the Pro Bowl in 2001, the year he made 181 tackles with the New York Jets. Can he make the Pro Bowl with the Steelers?

"No question," Porter said. "Last year he was new and in a different system. You're going to see a lot out of him this year. They would hate to see four of us in the Pro Bowl, but that's the quality we have here."

Farrior, the soft-spoken member of the group, does feel he had a good year in 2001 but doesn't harbor any resentment over the slight. And he bows humbly to the talent surrounding him.

"I'm the weak link right now," he said. "I just have to pick up my play, make some big plays and hopefully things will work out. It's a goal of mine to make the Pro Bowl. I'm sure it's a goal of every player in this league. If it's not one of your personal goals, why are you out there playing?"

Farrior is quietly putting together a fine camp. He was the star of the first goal-line session by making two of the four tackles and forcing Amos Zereoue to fumble inside the one. "It's like night and day right now," Farrior said. "When I first came in last year I didn't know anything. I was just learning on the move. Now I feel I have a grasp of the defense. I feel comfortable when I'm out there. I feel comfortable with the guys I'm with. It's a lot easier now."

Farrior plays the buck linebacker spot, a meatgrinder of a position guaranteed to shorten any player's career. "It's a tough position," he said. "It's a position designed for guys to be coming out on me, so I've got to take on a lot of blocks. Kendrell's a little bit more free with his movements. They try to keep him free to run to the ball. I take on a lot of blocks but they try to free me up, too. I like the position. It's a tough, gritty position, but when you play linebacker that's the position you want to play, in the middle."

And how does Farrior rank the Steelers' linebackers?

"I think we've got one of the best groups," he said. "I'm not going to say we're the best. I mean, who can say who's the best? I think we've got one of the top groups in the league. I'd put our group up against anybody."

Along with Jason Gildon, the Steelers' starting linebackers have combined to play in four Pro Bowls, while none of the Bills' starting linebackers have been so honored. The Steelers' linebackers have combined to play 21 seasons in the league while the Bills' linebackers have played 15. Here's the average year for the average linebacker on each team:

* Steelers – 63 tackles, 5.7 sacks, 1.5 forced fumbles, 0.4 interceptions.

* Bills – 79.7 tackles, 2.8 sacks, 1.0 forced fumble, 0.8 interceptions.

Of course, the Steelers use a 3-4 alignment and the Bills use a 4-3. Can such a simple comparison be made?

"It's apples and oranges," said Steelers defensive coordinator Tim Lewis. "But as per what linebackers are asked to do -- back the line, play in the run game and the coverage game -- ours are pretty damn good. I would stack ours up against anybody's."

Jim Wexell

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