The Pittsburgh Steelers will take a fresh approach on defense. Not only is Keith Butler taking over as defensive coordinator, but several young players also will play a prominent role in the starting lineup.
Unlike previous years when the coaching staff relied on veterans to execute Dick LeBeau’s complex defense, the Steelers are expected to go with a youth movement. That means players such as Stephon Tuitt, Ryan Shazier, Jarvis Jones and Shamarko Thomas will be full-time starters.
Although this group is full of potential, they still have plenty to prove—particularly Jones. The former first-round draft pick has battled injuries over his first two seasons and started only three games last season.
As Jones enters his third season, it will be a critical one not only for his development, but also for the overall performance of the defense. The defense has struggled getting to the quarterback, and it is time for Jones to be a part of the solution.
Yet, even the Steelers do not seem to have the confidence that Jones is ready to seize a full-time role. If so, why did they re-sign James Harrison?
Colin Dunlap of CBS Pittsburgh expressed his concern with this situation: “When is Jarvis Jones going to realize he shouldn’t have his job put in question by a guy who is going to be 37 in May? But, unfortunately for Jones, that’s precisely what’s happening.”
There is a reason the Steelers do not want to play Harrison more than 25 snaps per game this season. They are ready to see what Jones can do as their starting right outside linebacker.
Despite finishing with just one sack during his rookie season, there were high hopes for Jones in his second season. Over the first three games of the 2014 season, he finally began to show why the Steelers selected him in the first round as he accumulated 14 tackles, two sacks and one forced fumble.
Unfortunately, Jones suffered a wrist injury that would keep him out of the starting lineup for the remainder of the season. Even though he played well before the injury, general manager Kevin Colbert wants to push Jones as he enters his third season, according to Scott Brown of ESPN.com:
“Jarvis has to come in and he has to pick up where he left off before he injured his wrist because I really think he was playing very well at that point,” Colbert said. “But to have James there to spell him, push him and compete, we can’t help but benefit from having the two of them.”
Rather than get discouraged, Jones has taken full advantage of Harrison’s presence on the roster and spent time working out with him in Arizona. Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has noticed a difference and commented “he looks bigger” this year.
Jones doesn’t need to just be bigger, but also play stronger. He has had trouble winning the physical battles against offensive tackles in his young career, and added functional strength will only help him in this area. Outside linebackers coach Joey Porter is pleased with the young linebacker’s progress so far, per Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
“I’ve been encouraged with Jarvis,” Porter said. “I think Jarvis has had a good offseason. He’s getting stronger. He’s doing some things that he knows he needs to do to get better for this year. He’s not naive to know what he’s done so far. It doesn’t meet his standards and he knows there’s a lot more in there.”
High standards are important for Jones and the Steelers defense in general. Last season, they only had 33 sacks—their fewest in a quarter-century—and that is unacceptable for this season.
It would be one thing if the Steelers had a strong secondary to make up for a lack of pass rush, but they don’t. The secondary is arguably one of the worst in the NFL. That places a lot of pressure on the pass rush—specifically the outside linebackers—to get to the quarterback.
Jones had 28 sacks during his college career, but he could do much more. In three years—two at Georgia—he had 45.5 tackles for a loss, nine forced fumbles and one interception. With 24.5 tackles for a loss and 14.5 sacks during his junior season, Jones was named the 2012 SEC Defensive Player of the Year.
In essence, Jones was the type of playmaker in college that they need him to be in the NFL. He was a Joey Porter or a James Harrison. He was a defender that opposing offenses would fear and have to plan around. Now he is just another guy, but is putting forth the effort necessary to take the next step.
“I’m working hard,” Jones told Josh Yohe of DKonPittsburghSports.com. “I think I’m getting better every day. I think I had a great week here [at OTAs]. It’s going well. Everything in the past is already gone. I’m solely focused on this year.”
Jones must show improvement in all areas of his game. Whether it is defending the run or dropping into coverage, there is room for growth. However, nothing is as important as developing into an effective pass-rusher.
More than anything, the Steelers need players to rush the quarterback for their defense to be effective, and it will be up to Jones to be that type of player this season. If he struggles, the coaches will instead turn to Harrison and it will be the beginning of the end for Jones’ time in Pittsburgh.
By no means is he a bust, and for all we know, he will explode onto the scene this year. Even if he doesn’t, the Steelers at least need him to develop into another Jason Worilds, and soon.
Note: Unless otherwise noted, all stats are courtesy of ESPN.com and roster information is courtesy of Steelers.com.
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