Player Focus: Jarvis Jones
Back in June of 2013 I wrote an article about the Steelers’ first-round draft pick. It was, naturally, primarily speculation, as is most anything we write about draft picks. The sad truth is, no matter how amazing a guy was in college and how many awesome “measurables” they have, figuring out how well they will do in the NFL is anybody’s guess.
This is why the draft gurus have to reassess their assessments, as Mel Kiper did recently when he regraded the 2015 draft class. In case you’re wondering, he downgraded the Steelers class from A- to B-, mainly because Senquez Golson was injured and Sammie Coates didn’t play much at all.
Which drives me nuts. By this time everybody and their grandmother knows why the Steelers picked Coates, and he is looking like a perfectly lovely insurance policy who will contribute as a player in the near future. How can you downgrade the pick of a player who got injured? If nothing else issue an “incomplete.”
But the purpose of this article is not to bash Mel Kiper but to look back on the things we were speculating about then and see how well they lined up with reality. One of the things which had a lot of people excited about the pick was the thought that he might be able to actually start in his rookie season. In 2013 I mused about the difficulties of doing so, which means eradicating one’s past, or at least certain bits of it. I think this still has some interest, particularly now with hindsight, and I’m going to quote a couple big chunks of it. (As usual when quoting extensively I’ll use italics:)
I gave an organ recital in a small town in northeastern France on Sunday. As I was preparing for it a situation arose which made me think of Jarvis Jones. An article in Sunday’s Post Gazette closed the circle, and so here we are.
What started me thinking of Jarvis Jones was the question of muscle memory. Many years ago (I’m too embarrassed to tell you how many) I learned a piece by a Spanish Renaissance composer called Antonio de Cabezón. Unfortunately I learned it in what you might call a bowdlerized version. The editor, apparently thinking the piece as written was too strange for modern ears, changed a great many things to make it more palatable. I played it a number of times during the 1980s but hadn’t really played it since.
When I was putting together the program for Sunday’s recital I wanted a colorful piece, something quite different from the rest of the program, and ran across this piece in a much better edition. I decided to use it, thinking that as my practice time was quite limited this piece would take very little of it since I already knew it.
The problem, as I discovered to my dismay after it was too late to back out, was that what I “knew” was the earlier, incorrect edition. Although I hadn’t played the piece for probably 25 years, the neural pathways were all completely intact. And as anyone who has ever tried to relearn something can attest, it can be remarkably hard to erase those pathways and replace them with new ones. Much more difficult, in fact, than learning a new set of them (in this case, a new piece) in the first place.
As I was struggling during my practice sessions to replace the past with the present, my mind turned to the question of Jarvis Jones. There has been a lot of discussion ever since he was drafted as to whether he will be the first rookie since Casey Hampton in 2001 to start for the Steelers defense in his rookie season. There are several reasons to believe he might have a good chance to do so, and most of them are bound up in the question of muscle memory.
The Steelers have typically drafted smallish defensive ends to convert to outside linebacker. This has obviously been a successful strategy for them for the most part, but it does reduce the likelihood of said college defensive ends reaching the field as a starter in their rookie year to essentially zero.
Typically the Steelers haven’t been in a hurry to get their conversion projects onto the field, as there have been good options already available, and reasonable depth behind the starters.
This year, as we all know, is different. James Harrison is gone, and his putative replacement, Jason Worilds, has been frequently injured…
Worilds might be the heir apparent, but it isn’t by any means a given. If the Steelers had managed to re-sign Harrison to the incentive-laden deal he turned down, he would presumably have also provided another impediment to Jones’ debut, but it was not to be. Instead we are all forced to watch the Bengals to see what might have been, for good or ill.*
But perhaps the major factor giving Jones a reasonable chance to start in Pittsburgh is the fact that he played OLB in an NFL-style defensive system in college. This gives him an enormous advantage over most of the players drafted in recent years to play OLB. As Linebackers Coach Keith Butler said to Ed Bouchette, quoted in a recent Post Gazette article:
“The best thing for him [Jones] is his background, he played linebacker at Georgia, so he understands concepts as opposed to being a defensive end who doesn’t know anything.
He’s picked some things up. There’s a lot we’re throwing at him right now, as we do everybody. He’s still learning, but he’s learning at a quicker pace than most guys we drafted at that position as a defensive end.”
To return to 2016, the title of the linked article was “Don’t Rule Out Rookie Linebacker Jarvis Jones Starting for the Steelers.” The Steelers didn’t rule it out, and in fact according to Steelers.com’s stats page for Jones, he started eight of the fifteen games he played his rookie season. He took a step back in 2014, as he was injured for over half the season, and in the seven games he did play he only started in three. However, they considered him to be a starter in all 15 games he played this year.
“Starter” can mean a great many things, of course, and it certainly didn’t mean he got the majority of the snaps at his position. Joe Starkey of the Tribune-Review reported a comment last week which Jones made after the first Browns game:
“Coming in here three years ago, looking back at it now, I thought my career would be totally different from what it is,” Jones said. “But I’m living for today. I’m just trying to take advantage of all my opportunities, man. Just carpe diem.”
How did he imagine his career would be?
“I ain’t going to get into that, ’cause it ain’t what it is,” Jones said, memorably.
The jist of Starkey’s article was basically, Jones has one more year to show the Steelers he is who they thought he was:
Watch long enough, and you’ll see bursts of violent abandon in his game. But you wonder if his body type — when I first saw him I wondered where the rest of him was — will allow him to ever beat offensive tackles consistently. Maybe that is why the Steelers dropped him into pass coverage more than Jones would like.
Former Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor recently told me the team likes Jones’ play against the run, something Tomlin reiterated Wednesday. Maybe Jones will be a good player but just a different kind than originally projected. It also is fair to point out that he missed nine games in 2014, so next year projects as only his third full season.
“His arrow’s pointed up, but it needs to be,” Tomlin said. “He’s growing and evolving in all areas, but we expect him to.”
I think it’s fair to say that if Jones were showing Von Miller-type ability to get to the quarterback, he would be put in pass-rushing situations more. He had two sacks this season—small potatoes for an OLB in a Dick LeBeau-style 3-4 defense. But it is also fair to say that maybe Jones just needs a bit more time. To return to my 2013 post-draft remarks:
[Playing in college in a pro-style 3-4 defense] does not imply a small learning curve for Jones, though—just a smaller one than usual. Although it might have been an NFL-style defense, the Georgia scheme was a great deal simpler and more straightforward than that of defensive wizard Dick LeBeau. In fact it is the complexity of this defensive scheme which has both made it so hard to crack for opposing offenses and so difficult to learn for rookies. Another quote from the above-mentioned PG article is telling:
Jones is learning to drop into pass coverage in spring practices more than anything else.
“He’s done well in the drops, but, when he was in college, he kind of freelanced a little bit,” Butler said. “We’re a little bit more disciplined in terms of what we ask him to do and the technique we ask him to use in the passing game.
“All he did was drop straight back and look at the quarterback. He was 5 yards off the ball looking at the quarterback. We ask him to do a lot of different things in terms of pass coverage, and that’s not one of them. I have to get him out of that habit a little bit, and he’s willing to get out of that habit.””
That “habit” is thoroughly built into his muscle memory, and he will have to painfully unlearn it if he wants a chance to start. And although Butler downplayed the extent of the issue, he knows perfectly well that Jones will have to do more than “get out of the habit a little bit.” He’s going to have to essentially eradicate the instinctive reflexes he used in the Georgia scheme…
As this article, Muscle Memory: A Coaches Perspective, states:
So how do you successfully override it [the former unwanted neural pathway]? With conscious effort. You must concentrate on the new skill that is to replace the previous habit and they must do so until the new muscle memory pattern is established. Not just one practice session, one day, or even one week. It may take weeks, months, or even years.
It’s a good thing I didn’t read this before my recital, as I might have despaired. Fortunately old age and trickery overcame the ingrained muscle memory to a sufficient degree so I didn’t embarrass myself. It also helped that I’m an old hand at performing, because nervousness creates its own problems.
Back in 2013, I shared a story about another local sports figure:
Tony Sanchez was drafted in the first round by the Pirates in 2009 to be their catcher of the future, or so I presume. He was called up to the big leagues for the first time last week and joined the Pirates in Los Angeles to act as a designated hitter. Sanchez didn’t get his first at-bat until Sunday’s game, and here’s what happened, as per ESPN:
“When I walked up to the plate, my legs started shaking uncontrollably,” Sanchez said. “I told (Angels catcher Chris) Iannetta: `I can’t stop shaking. I don’t know what to do.’ And he said: `Just breathe. Just breathe.’ So I took one step out of the box and took a breath, but that didn’t help. Then Blanton threw me a ball that I could handle. It felt really good off the bat…”
Sanchez reverted to his instincts, which fortunately were good, and hit a ground-rule double (it stuck in a gap under the visitor’s scoreboard.) I hope Sanchez thought to thank Ianetta after the game, although Sanchez’s double didn’t actually result in a run, so in this case Ianetta’s good deed did apparently go unpunished.
Two years later, there is a not-so-great ending to this lovely story. Tony Sanchez developed throwing problems. Not that he lost arm strength or anything. He just seemed to get the yips, or whatever you want to call it, and it was just as likely the ball would sail five feet over the head of the second baseman, or whoever he was targeting, as that it would find its spot. He spent essentially the whole season in Triple A, and no one thinks of him as the catcher of the future anymore, except perhaps his mom.
It’s a great pity. He seems like a great kid and was known for his hilarious and gently self-deprecating twitter account. But sometimes things just don’t work out.
Which has echoes in the Jarvis Jones saga. In his draft profile of Jones Mel Kiper said something to the effect that, character-wise, on a scale of 1-10, Jones was a 15. But nobody is going to care about that character if he doesn’t turn into a fine player in the proud panoply of Steelers OLBs.
But, like it or not, this is part of what goes with being a first-round pick. Expectations are high around these parts. As Dale Lolley wrote in November:
Jarvis Jones might never do enough to satisfy Steelers fans.
They’ll always point to his first-round draft pick status and expect him to be a double-digit sack, game-changing player.
In his third season, Jones is rounding into form as a solid contributor for the Steelers, who enter their bye week with a 6-4 record.
“I think Jarvis’ development is getting a lot better just from a scheme standpoint,” said Steelers outside linebackers coach Joey Porter. “The stats aren’t there for what we all look at, but how we’re playing and what we’re asking him to do, he’s playing the run and he’s playing the pass. He’s giving great effort all the time. I think he’s doing a good job and is just going to get better.”
While Lolley acknowledged Jones’ production wasn’t what one would expect at his position, he also noted:
The Steelers changed responsibilities for the outside linebackers. In previous years, the defensive line was asked to take on blockers to allow the linebackers to make the plays; now the line is getting upfield at the snap, leaving the linebackers to fend for themselves with offensive tackles more often.
As a result, the team’s sacks are up – Pittsburgh ranks 4th in the NFL with 28 – but its outside linebackers combined for just 10.
“Everybody wants their individual stats. But you also want to do what you can to get out of stadiums with wins,” said Jones. “That’s not what’s going on right now. Our coach builds our game plan around the team. It’s not like one guy is standing out. Everybody has to do their job. That’s our main focus and that’s how we’re going to play it.”
One of the things which made the 2015 version of the Steelers so special this year was the feeling of a tremendous effort being put out towards a common goal. This has always been a focus of Mike Tomlin, all the way back to when he told Willie Parker “Every day I walk past five Lombardi Trophies, not five rushing titles.” I believe that the spirit of this particular group of players was what Tomlin has been striving for since he came to Pittsburgh, and why he was so undone when he didn’t get to take them all the way to the Super Bowl.
I’m a great believer in patience. I believe Tomlin is, too. He has practical considerations which may override his desire to give a player just a little bit more time. But I think as long as he sees the progress he needs to see, he will ride all the way with a guy who is taking longer than most people think he should. All we need to do is consider how quickly many were ready to write off Cameron Heyward. I’m hoping 2016 is Jones’ year to solidify his place in the annals of Steeler lore.
Which doesn’t necessarily mean being the best to ever play the position. As Jones said “Everybody has to do their job.” And some of them may not be quite as glamorous as they (and perhaps we) dreamed of, before the realities of life in the NFL hit.
Thus endeth the philosophical portion of this article. I will eventually get around to looking at performance trends for the players of more than ordinary interest such as Jones. But not tonight…