Steelers’ Jones turning heads in quest to earn starting linebacker job
The Steelers did not draft outside linebacker Jarvis Jones to sit him. Not when he seems to have an innate ability to do the two things the NFL’s top-ranked defense did not do well last season.
“I love being around the ball. Guys say to me, ‘Why are you so lucky? Why is every time the ball’s out you’re just always in the right place?’ ” Jones said Thursday. “I’ve got a knack for getting the ball out, man.”
Now the question is when will Jones get into the Steelers’ lineup as James Harrison’s permanent replacement?
He took a majority of snaps with the starters in practice Wednesday night, but Jason Worilds — the longtime backup to Harrison and LaMarr Woodley — took most of them Thursday. Coach Mike Tomlin is giving no indication which player will start the season.
Jones, the No. 17 overall pick in the draft, was college football’s best pass rusher last season with 14 1⁄2 sacks at Georgia. He also forced nine fumbles during his college career. Coincidentally or not, he fell on a fumble during his first preseason series Saturday against the Giants.
Sacking and taking the ball away are just what the Steelers lacked nearly across the board.
They forced only 20 turnovers last season and 15 in 2011, giving them 35 in two seasons — or six fewer than the Patriots had last season. And their 37 sacks in 2012 and 35 in 2011 ranked only in the middle of the league at the same time they were near the top in nearly every major statistical category.
“That’s something we’re focusing on here. We’ve got to start getting the ball out more or at least attempt at doing it,” Jones said. “That’s my style of play. Any chance I get around the ball carrier, I’m going to take a strip or two and see if I can get it out.”
Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is talking almost daily about the necessity of ramping up the turnover numbers — “And sacks create turnovers,” he said — and the solution might be standing right before him.
The Steelers are giving every indication that running back Le’Veon Bell, despite aggravating a knee injury during practice Thursday, will get every chance to improve what was the offense’s major liability last season — running the ball.
He is listed as a co-starter with Isaac Redman for the preseason game Monday against Washington.
And it’s looking more like they are about to afford the same opportunity to Jones, even though he didn’t make as many impressive plays as Bell early in training camp.
Cornerback Ike Taylor is convinced Jones is going to be an impact player soon.
“He’s a ball hawk. He’s always around the ball,” Taylor said. “Jarvis, since he stepped in, he’s contributed. Now he’s comfortable, (despite) not knowing all the defense but the majority. I can’t wait to see him play. … Jarvis Jones is going to be havoc, a turnover machine.”
Jones’ biggest adjustment is going from a college defense in which he was permitted considerable latitude to one that is more structured but ever-changing; he said the playbook changes considerably from week to week, and LeBeau is continuing to add more.
“I’m not just freelancing and doing the things I’m used to doing,” Jones said.
“In college, they were a little more lenient. If I saw a play, I was going to go make it. Here, this defense is set and run the way they want it to run. I have to understand that, and I do, and continue to be disciplined and stay within my job and not try to do everybody else’s.”
For now, Worilds’ advantage is knowing the defense better than Jones and performing fairly well while not starting. He had five sacks despite starting only three games last season. But Worilds is an unrestricted free agent after this season, and the benefit to the Steelers playing Jones now is that he will be more comfortable and game-tested if Worilds moves on and Jones settles in as the undisputed starter next season.
“I want to start, but at the end of the day, it’s not my choice,” Jones said.
Jones would prefer to convince the Steelers they shouldn’t make any other choice.
“I made a lot of plays in college, and hopefully I can transfer that to here and keep getting better at it,” Jones said. “Turnovers are always a big part of this game. You get two, three turnovers, you’ve got a lot better chance of winning.”