Breaking down the Steelers/The linebackers

The 2004 Pittsburgh Steelers intrigued us, made us smile and surprised even their harshest critics. <br><br> Ultimately, however, they disappointed.

But there is plenty to be excited about for next season. The core of the team is under contract for next season and the Steelers will open the 2005 season as one of the favorites to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.

This will be a position-by-position look at the Steelers from 2004.

Today: The linebackers

Linebackers have always been the key to the Steelers' 3-4 defense and the 2004 group didn't disappoint. But the Steelers also got some surprising efforts from players they didn't expect among this group throughout the season.

And unfortunately for the Steelers, they've only got six linebackers under contract for the 2005 season - one of whom is super-bust Alonzo Jackson.

Starters Clark Haggans, Joey Porter and James Farrior are three of the players under contract for next season, so the Steelers are guaranteed to have a good group returning.

Haggans was solid, if unspectacular in his first season as a starter. But he was better than the man he replaced, Jason Gildon. Still, the Steelers need more out of Haggans as a pass rusher in 2005.

Porter is the vocal leader of the Steelers, something that's not always a good thing, as evidenced by his pre-game fight with Cleveland's William Green and subsequent ejection. That's not exactly something you want your younger players emulating.

But Porter can make plays and he forces opponents to keep track of him.

Farrior was outstanding in 2004, earning a spot on the NFL's All-Pro team as the league's best interior linebacker. While Farrior had made plenty of tackles in previous seasons, he hadn't been a guy who forced many turnovers. That changed in 2004 and he'll be hard-pressed to match his output again in 2005.

Farrior's outstanding season helped make up for the fact that Kendrell Bell was a no-show for the 2004 season. The 2001 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year basically took the season off after. As has been the case throughout his career, Bell was constantly nicked up. But unlike previous seasons, Bell refused to play through any injuries, likely looking towards his impending free agency.

By season's end, the Steelers had written Bell out of their plans and he'll hit the open market, though it's unlikely he will get the kind of contract offer he would have expected before the 2004 season.

Larry Foote stepped into the lineup in place of Bell and started all 18 games the Steelers played. Foote isn't the physical specimen that Bell is, but he's a heady player who flourished under new defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. Foote's not a star, but he's a solid player who can get the job done. He's a restricted free agent, but it's unlikely a team will take a run at him. Foote's a nice fit in the Steelers' 3-4, but he's probably not big enough to play in the middle by himself in a 4-3.

James Harrison was signed by the Steelers in training camp when Haggans was injured and turned out to be a find - again. Signed by the Steelers as a rookie free agent, Harrison was twice cut by Pittsburgh and spent the 2003 season in Baltimore before being cut by the Ravens. He won't be released again any time soon.

Harrison played well filling in for Porter and Haggans. The Steelers also worked with him on the inside as well and he could push Foote for playing time in 2005.

Clint Kriewaldt is the team's other backup linebacker, though he is on the team more for his special teams play than anything else. In fact, Kriewaldt and Harrison may be the team's two best special teams players, which pretty much guarantees them a spot on the roster in 2005.

One player not guaranteed a spot is the enigmatic Jackson. The team's 2003 second-round draft pick, Jackson hasn't been able to make the transition from college lineman to NFL linebacker. In fact, he doesn't look as if he even belongs in the NFL. He got a chance to play a lot in training camp when Haggans was out with a broken hand and got another opportunity to play when Haggans suffered a groin injury at the end of the season. But Harrison clearly outplayed him and has made Jackson expendable.

Dedrick Roper played well enough in the preseason to make the 53-man roster, but was pushed to the practice squad when the team decided to keep Jackson instead. Roper's an intriguing prospect, but if the Steelers draft another linebacker prospect this year, he'll really have to show something on special teams to make the roster in 2005.


Steel City Insider Top Stories

\r\n\r\nBut there is plenty to be excited about for next season. The core \r\nof the team is under contract for next season and the Steelers \r\nwill open the 2005 season as one of the favorites to represent \r\nthe AFC in the Super Bowl.\r\n

\r\nThis will be a position-by-position look at the Steelers from 2004.\r\n

\r\nToday: The linebackers\r\n

\r\nLinebackers have always been the key to the Steelers' 3-4 \r\ndefense and the 2004 group didn't disappoint. But the Steelers \r\nalso got some surprising efforts from players they didn't expect \r\namong this group throughout the season.\r\n

\r\nAnd unfortunately for the Steelers, they've only got six linebackers \r\nunder contract for the 2005 season - one of whom is super-bust \r\nAlonzo Jackson.\r\n

\r\nStarters Clark Haggans, Joey Porter and James Farrior are three \r\nof the players under contract for next season, so the Steelers are \r\nguaranteed to have a good group returning.\r\n

\r\nHaggans was solid, if unspectacular in his first season as a \r\nstarter. But he was better than the man he replaced, Jason Gildon. Still, the Steelers need more out of Haggans as a pass \r\nrusher in 2005.\r\n

\r\nPorter is the vocal leader of the Steelers, something that's not \r\nalways a good thing, as evidenced by his pre-game fight with \r\nCleveland's William Green and subsequent ejection. That's not \r\nexactly something you want your younger players emulating.\r\n

\r\nBut Porter can make plays and he forces opponents to keep \r\ntrack of him.\r\n

\r\nFarrior was outstanding in 2004, earning a spot on the NFL's \r\nAll-Pro team as the league's best interior linebacker. While \r\nFarrior had made plenty of tackles in previous seasons, he \r\nhadn't been a guy who forced many turnovers. That changed in \r\n2004 and he'll be hard-pressed to match his output again in \r\n2005.\r\n

\r\nFarrior's outstanding season helped make up for the fact that \r\nKendrell Bell was a no-show for the 2004 season. The 2001 \r\nNFL Defensive Rookie of the Year basically took the season off \r\nafter. As has been the case throughout his career, Bell was \r\nconstantly nicked up. But unlike previous seasons, Bell refused \r\nto play through any injuries, likely looking towards his impending \r\nfree agency.\r\n

\r\nBy season's end, the Steelers had written Bell out of their plans \r\nand he'll hit the open market, though it's unlikely he will get the \r\nkind of contract offer he would have expected before the 2004 \r\nseason.\r\n

\r\nLarry Foote stepped into the lineup in place of Bell and started all \r\n18 games the Steelers played. Foote isn't the physical specimen \r\nthat Bell is, but he's a heady player who flourished under new \r\ndefensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. Foote's not a star, but he's a \r\nsolid player who can get the job done. He's a restricted free \r\nagent, but it's unlikely a team will take a run at him. Foote's a \r\nnice fit in the Steelers' 3-4, but he's probably not big enough to \r\nplay in the middle by himself in a 4-3.\r\n

\r\nJames Harrison was signed by the Steelers in training camp \r\nwhen Haggans was injured and turned out to be a find - again. \r\nSigned by the Steelers as a rookie free agent, Harrison was \r\ntwice cut by Pittsburgh and spent the 2003 season in Baltimore \r\nbefore being cut by the Ravens. He won't be released again any \r\ntime soon.\r\n

\r\nHarrison played well filling in for Porter and Haggans. The \r\nSteelers also worked with him on the inside as well and he \r\ncould push Foote for playing time in 2005.\r\n

\r\nClint Kriewaldt is the team's other backup linebacker, though he \r\nis on the team more for his special teams play than anything \r\nelse. In fact, Kriewaldt and Harrison may be the team's two best \r\nspecial teams players, which pretty much guarantees them a \r\nspot on the roster in 2005.\r\n

\r\nOne player not guaranteed a spot is the enigmatic Jackson. The \r\nteam's 2003 second-round draft pick, Jackson hasn't been able \r\nto make the transition from college lineman to NFL linebacker. In \r\nfact, he doesn't look as if he even belongs in the NFL. He got a \r\nchance to play a lot in training camp when Haggans was out with \r\na broken hand and got another opportunity to play when \r\nHaggans suffered a groin injury at the end of the season. But \r\nHarrison clearly outplayed him and has made Jackson \r\nexpendable.\r\n

\r\nDedrick Roper played well enough in the preseason to make the \r\n53-man roster, but was pushed to the practice squad when the \r\nteam decided to keep Jackson instead. Roper's an intriguing \r\nprospect, but if the Steelers draft another linebacker prospect \r\nthis year, he'll really have to show something on special teams \r\nto make the roster in 2005.

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