Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Training Camp Preview: Defensive Line and Linebackers

In the weeks leading up to training camp, I will be taking a position-by-position look at the roster. No firm roster projections will be made yet (that will have to wait until the first 53-man roster projection right before camp starts), but I hope to give you a general overview of how things stand at each position. Today, we'll look at the defensive line and linebackers.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Total Roster Spots: 7

Locks: 4 (Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel, Chris Hoke)

Spots Open/Candidates: 3 (Travis Kirschke, Nick Eason, Ryan McBean, Scott Paxson, a few undrafted free agents)

Overview: Opportunity abounds for some longshots to make the roster here. Locked into spots are Smith, Hampton, Keisel, and most likely Hoke. After that, though, you have two marginal veterans, a 2nd year player coming off a disappointing rookie season, a practice squader, and a handful of undrafted free agents fighting for three or so spots.

The problem with this group is not the starters. When healthy, Smith, Hampton, and Kiesel compromise one of the better 3-4 defensive lines in the business. However, each has their issues. Smith is recovering from a torn bicep. Towards the end of last season Hampton looked like he was pushing four bills and was severely out of shape. And I’ve always felt that Kiesel was a serviceable starter but a guy who is much better as a wave player to keep the other guys fresh. He needs to start closing the deal (he led the team with 31 quarterback pressures but only registered 2 sacks.) Beyond that, age is quickly catching up with all three of these guys.

Depth is the questionable area. Hoke is okay but is also getting up there in years. Many fans (myself included) wanted Kirschke and Eason pushed out the door, but the Steelers re-signed both. Both may do fine if they’re only asked to contribute 10-15 plays a game, but if they have to start the quality of the Steeler’s run defense takes a serious hit. McBean did little his rookie season and his development has been hampered by a fractured foot for most of this offseason. It would be foolish to expect much from him. Paxson is an intriguing guy who spent his rookie year on the practice squad. His history of legal troubles caused him to go undrafted last year, while his talent indicated he probably should have been chosen. He could make some noise. I won’t comment on the undrafted free agents since I haven’t seen any of them play. These UDFA’s are mostly longshots, but usually one or two will make the opening day roster (Russell and Stapleton last year), and they aren’t really facing stiff competition at this position. If one impresses, I doubt the Steelers would be hesitant to let go of either Kirschke or Eason. Both signed contracts for small amounts of money and their release would result in a minimal cap hit. One guy to keep an eye on is Northwood's Kyle Clement, who supposedly has been spending extra time with Aaron Smith after practice to work on his technique and has so far drawn rave reviews from the coaching staff.

LINEBACKERS

Total Roster Spots: 9

Locks: 6 (James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, James Farrior, Larry Foote, Lawrence Timmons, Bruce Davis)

Spots Open/Candidates: 3 (Arnold Harrison, Keyaron Fox, Mike Humpal, Anthony Trucks, a few undrafted free agents)

Overview: This is one of the few positions where there will be competition for a starting spot. Foote and Timmons will battle for the starting inside linebacker spot beside Farrior. This will all hinge on how Timmons performs. He’s athletically superior to the Foote in every way, but he needs to understand his assignments in order to use that athletic ability to his benefit. If he has to think too much, the coaching staff will be loathe to replace Foote, who is sound, steady, but unspectacular. As for Farrior, he keeps chugging along at age 33. He’s the heart and soul of this defense. The starting outside linebackers should be even better this year. Harrison should increase his sack totals from last season because of the guy on the other side. Woodley had the same number of sacks Haggans did last season—except he got his while playing only 80 snaps the entire year. Let’s not forget that Woodley also chipped in two sacks in the playoff game against Jacksonville. He’ll command more attention than Haggans did, which should give big James more room to rush the passer. Woodley does need to work on playing in space, though. He’s probably a liability in coverage right now, and I still have vivid memories of him getting juked out of his jock strap on a touchdown by Steven Jackson in last year’s Rams game.

The depth at this position is pretty good. At outside linebacker, Arnold Harrison is likely the top backup until Davis proves his worth. I wouldn’t expect much from Davis this year. He probably needs to add some strength before he can become a serious pass rusher in the NFL, but his speed should help out on special teams. At inside linebacker, Fox and Humpal are both improvements over Clint Kriewaldt. Like Davis, their speed and youth should also help out the special teams. It seems Humpal also has the ability to become a 2-down run stuffer for us in the future, but for now he’s strictly a depth guy. As for Frazier and the undrafted rookies, I don’t see them making the team unless they really impress and Humpal and/or Fox fall flat on their faces. Trucks will probably be one of the first guys to be released in training camp.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm worried about Woodley in pass coverage too. Teams will try to expose that weakness with a TE or RB, but that will probably leave Harrison on the weak side of the line and give him more sacks. Like you're saying, expect more sacks but more frustration when Harrison doesn't get to the QB when Woodley draws attention.

Dave Wannstache said...

Woodley against a tight end like Heap or Winslow could get ugly. I have no doubt opposing offensive coordinators will try and attack him.

I think he'll get better in coverage, it's just going to take some time. He's close to 270 pounds, and he mostly played defensive end at Michigan. He's most definitely still a work in progress.

Will Blackwell said...

Question for you stache.

Will the defense be better or worse than last year?

I just see us getting older and older while the young guys are too inexperienced that they have their own liabilities at this point. I think we should have cleaned out the older guys and restocked in the draft allowing a defensive starting 11 that might actually be together for a significant amount of time. But instead we grabbed a RB and WR. I'm not expecting much this year.

Dave Wannstache said...

There's a lot of variables on the defense that will ultimately determine how they fare:

- Will Troy come back healthy and become the Troy of old? At his best he has the ability to impact a game like no other player in this league. You wanna know something shocking? Troy hasn't had a sack or INT since October 22, 2006.

- Will Hampton get in shape? He's a beast when he is. If he stays at his end of season playing weight he doesn't hold up for an entire game.

- Can the D-line stay healthy? The lack of quality depth necessitates this and if someone goes down, we're probably fucked.

- Is Timmons able to start? He would allow this defense to do so much more if he takes Foote's place, but as I said, they're not going to replace Foote until Timmons demonstrates he isn't a liability and he knows what he's doing.

What I'm trying to say is... I can't really answer your question. Too many unknowns that we need to see shake out, but if all four of the above come to fruition (and that's a big if), I think you'll see one of the best defenses in the league.