Steelers linebackers are No. 1s to watch
Lawrence Timmons couldn’t help but smile when reminded the Steelers’ projected starting lineup on defense has four No. 1 draft picks filling every linebacker slot.
Yet, the Steelers veteran inside linebacker quickly tempered his enthusiasm.
The former No. 1 pick knows the road to playoff success will be paved by a defense that can generate a better pass rush to protect a secondary that was sometimes overwhelmed during last season’s playoff run.
However, general manager Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin figure they have plugged those leaks with their last three first-round picks — all linebackers. The Steelers didn’t hesitate in taking Bud Dupree off the draft board with the 22nd overall pick this year. In doing so, they shunned a seemingly more pressing need at cornerback.
But linebacker coach Joey Porter was giddy with the idea of playing Dupree alongside the team’s two previous first-round picks: outside linebacker Jarvis Jones and inside linebacker Ryan Shazier.
“It might be a lot of pressure, but it’s all about playing football,” Jones said. “At the end of the day, the first-round pick stuff doesn’t matter. It’s about doing your job and being productive.”
Of course, playing all four first-rounders will depend greatly on Dupree’s ability to grasp the defense and the health of Shazier and Jones, both of whom were plagued with injuries during their rookie seasons.
Also, veteran James Harrison isn’t expected to quietly settle into a reserve role. It hardly matters that Porter suggested he pace himself during a season in which the Steelers have the league’s most difficult regular-season schedule.
“Right now, we’re trying to build a foundation,” said Timmons, who had a team-high 132 total tackles — 61 more than anyone else on the team. “We have a lot of potential, which is what we have to work toward. It’s our main focus.”
The focus, though, will be on the linebacker corps.
“The question will be can we work together,” Timmons said. “We have to develop the kind of camaraderie that will make our defense great. We have to work together as a unit to be one chord, one sound.
“We are a prideful defense that may have to do some things out of the norm to get better. We’re trying to do more stuff as a unit, even off the field. It enables you to play hard for the man next to you.”
Dupree is expected to lineup opposite Timmons, filling the void left by the retirement of Jason Worilds.
“His physical presence is unbelievable,” Timmons said of Dupree. “He seems to be a sponge right now. I don’t think he’ll have a problem adjusting to this league.”
Like Jones, the expectations are that Dupree can provide quarterback pressure. The Steelers had only 33 sacks in 2014, which was 21 fewer than league-leader Buffalo.
“I feel like everyone is a good player on defense, so I don’t feel much pressure,” Dupree said. “I’ve never seen anything like what we have at linebacker. I know I’m going to be pushed hard, but that’s what it takes for me to contribute.
“I have to stay humble and grounded. Sometimes, you have to go out of your way to do things that fit you.”
Admittedly, Jones is still finding his way. The team’s first selection in 2013 is convinced he has weathered the growing pains.
“I think people saw me in college and expected to contribute like right now,” Jones said. “My injuries hurt me and my learning curving definitely hurt me. I’m all on the positive side now, partly because I’m better mentally and playing a lot faster.”
Timmons has lofty expectations for the young No. 1s, but he’s convinced role players such as Vince Williams and Sean Spence will play significant roles as well.
“Vince is a great hitter and smart on the defense,” Timmons said. “He knows the ins and outs of the defense, which allows him to line up the defense.”
“Everyone has to contribute and not just the first-round picks,” Jones said. “It takes more than good linebackers to make things work.”