By Dale Grdnic
LATROBE, Pa. — While all the focus on the Pittsburgh Steelers linebacking corps has been at the right outside spot where James Harrison roamed for the past decade or so, there are several battles brewing at the other spots.
Sure, anytime a former Pro Bowl player like Harrison leaves and the spot is up for grabs, there’s going to be heavy interest. The Steelers fueled that by taking Jarvis Jones with their No. 1 pick during the recent NFL Draft. Jones is competing with Jason Worilds for the starting job, but Worilds has been out with a big toe injury.
“I hope to be back soon, but I really couldn’t give a timetable,” Worilds said.
Jones also has missed a couple practices with a right knee problem, but he was expected to be ready for the preseason opener against the New York Giants Saturday night at 7:30 at Heinz Field.
“Oh, yes,” Jones said. “Unless I have a setback, I expect to be ready to play.”
LaMarr Woodley mans the left-side linebacker spot, while Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons are in the middle. Third-year player Chris Carter has played both outside positions, and he was on the right side when Worilds and Jones were both out. Camp surprise Alan Baxter, sixth-round pick Vince Williams, first-year player Marshall McFadden, Brian Rolle, Terence Garvin, Kion Wilson, second-year player Adrian Robinson and fourth-year pro Stevenson Sylvester are all in the mix.
“With James gone, some other guys are going to have to step up,” Woodley said. “Guys like Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones, it’s their time now. We also have some younger guys like Marshall McFadden, Vince Williams, Alan Baxter. They’re all looking good so far, but we have about eight middle linebackers.
“So, there aren’t many reps available, so each guy has to make his count. And I think all of them did a great job against the blockers in the one-on-one drills. So, they’re out there competing, and that’s all you can ask of them right now. I really think the best opportunities for them will come in the preseason games.”
Jones, Baxter, Carter and Robinson, who has missed several practices with an injury, are all playing outside linebacker. The inside guys are McFadden, Sylvester, Williams, Garvin, Rolle and Wilson.
“All our guys know that they’re just a play or two away from getting into a game, and they have to be ready,” Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler said. “But we have some smart kids, and they’ve all been working hard. They obviously have some things to learn, but they’ve made some plays so far.”
Carter and Sylvester have stuck with the Steelers despite limited production and injury problems. Carter actually has started a few games, while Sylvester has rarely contributed more than just special teams work.
“I know it’s a big camp for me and Sly,” Carter said. “We’re working hard out there, and we’re staying healthy. That’s crucial in this game. You know the old saying, you can’t make the team from the tub. If you can’t go, somebody else is going to be in there to take your spot. We have a lot of young guys, and they all can play. So, it’s time to step up and make some plays.”
The Steelers are likely to keep 8-9 linebackers on the 53-man roster, so the four starters and at least one backup would be it. Anybody else would have to make it to the practice squad.