Training Camp Battles: Outside Linebackers
To see the earlier posts in this series, click the links: 1.Veteranosity vs. Youth, 2. Quarterback, 3. Defensive Tackle, 4. Tight Ends, 5. Inside Linebackers, and 6. Running Backs and Offensive Line
The battle for the outside linebacker slots is an odd one. The odd part (or depressing, depending on how you view life) is that the Steelers can’t seem to find anyone to beat out a 38-year-old man. That 38 year old would, of course, be James Harrison, and the Steelers have tried everything to replace him. They tried cutting him (actually, they tried that several times at the other end of his career as well.) They tried retiring him, but he was back a few weeks after a touching ceremony with tears all around. They tried sending his BFF, former defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, off into the sunset. (They haven’t been real successful with this move lately, as the offensive coordinator they sent into the old folks home is a highly regarded head coach. LeBeau is defensive coordinator for the Titans.) Pretty soon his age is going to match his jersey number.
I’m not getting off track, really. I’m just demonstrating how much effort the Steelers have gone to in their attempt to find a replacement for Harrison. But he keeps coming back, shaming the youngsters with his unbelievable workout videos and their inability to win the starting job. Because let’s be honest—no matter who they call the “starter,” the number of plays you are in the game tells the tale. And here’s the tale for 2015:
- Starter at ROLB: Jarvis Jones. Snaps: 532
- Backup at ROLB: James Harrison. Snaps: 714
Since I know you need to know this sort of thing, you will no doubt be interested to know that the preponderance of snaps played by Harrison (457 out of 714) were passing snaps. It was also the case for Jones (333 passing snaps, 199 running.) But those numbers sure make it look like Harrison was the starter.
And if we take Friday’s game vs. the Lions as any indication (although I would hate to think it means anything about anything) Harrison is still the starter. He was in for the first series which Matthew Stafford quarterbacked, and he finished him off nicely, too. The coaches had tried to keep Harrison out of the game, but he said he wanted to play. And I suppose he is the 800 pound gorilla in the room.
The elephant in the room, of course, is Jarvis Jones, in that I at least would prefer to tiptoe around the subject of why the guy drafted No. 17 overall, three years ago, has not managed to take over the job. I really don’t want to start in on this subject. I presume it isn’t lack of effort which has hampered him. And of course there were some untimely injuries, just about the point he seemed to be coming along.
Fortunately Coach Porter, who seems to say what he thinks, thinks Jarvis Jones is going to have a great year this season. So there’s that. Maybe Jarvis Jones will have a monster season just in time to earn an enormous contract somewhere else. But I think we would all take that.
On the other side of the field we have a similar veteran/youngster battle. Bud Dupree is the heir apparent to that job, but last year his apparent lack of conditioning meant that as the year went on he ceded a lot of snaps to Arthur Moats. A lot. For Games 12, 13 and 14 he played a total of 61 snaps. Here’s what it looked like:
- Starter at LOLB: Bud Dupree. Snaps: 670
- Backup at LOLB: Arthur Moats. Snaps: 603
Will things be different this season? I think everyone hopes so. Arthur Moats is a wonderful man and a solid player, but Bud Dupree is the future at that position, or that’s what we hope. On the other hand, Moats was playing and Dupree wasn’t. And oh, by the way, Moats was the one who recovered the ball Harrison stripped from Stafford.
All of that said, barring injuries (and it seems to be the young guys struggling with those rather than the grizzled vets) those four will almost certainly make up the top end of the depth chart. The question is, who else stays?
From all reports Antony Chickillo has the inside track on an outside spot, at least so far. The story has been circulating for at least a week now—no one (except David Johnson, that is) was able to block him in the backs on backers at Friday Night Lights. Tomlin likes that sort of thing…
I put Jordan Zumwalt in with the ILBs in my earlier article, but now have discovered the Steelers have him as an OLB on the depth chart. For what it’s worth he’s a spot ahead of Travis Feeney (No. 3 in the ROLB column, behind James Harrison.)
One of the other guys contending for a spot is Mike Reilly, who the Steelers signed in early June. He was a UDFA out of Tomlin’s alma mater, William & Mary, in 2015. The Browns signed him and he spent the preseason with them, but was cut. I doesn’t appear he signed with anyone else until after the season. The Cardinals picked him up but released him in May. He would seem to be a very long shot.
And speaking of long shots, I wonder what they are going to do with Travis Feeney. I presume the idea is the practice squad, but I wonder if they even know what they’ve got at this point. Again for what it’s worth, he’s listed as No. 4 in the ROLB list, behind Jordan Zumwalt.
I thought it would be interesting to look at the snap counts for the first game. Admittedly, this is in many ways, meaningless, because more of the work is typically given to the guys trying to earn a roster spot at all. But for what it’s worth, here they are, courtesty of Steelers Depot. First figure is defensive snaps, second special teams snaps
- Jarvis Jones: 0 (he sat out the game, I’m guessing still nursing the biceps injury he sustained in late July.)
- James Harrison: 10/0
- Bud Dupree: 0 (also injured—groin)
- Arthur Moats: 40/11
- Anthony Chickillo: 27/10
- Travis Feeney: 0 (I assume this is due to injury, although I can’t confirm this.)
- Mike Reilly: 33/8
- Jordan Zumwalt: 44/6
Hopefully the three guys who were out will play in the Eagles game. It would sure be nice to get a look at them.
If the Steelers were a more devious team, I might think they were high on Feeney in the long term, are concerned he isn’t ready yet but are afraid he might flash too much and get snapped up if they tried to hide him on the practice squad. It is more probable that he is fighting a bug of some sort.