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Old 01-31-2011, 12:25 PM   #1
SH-Rock
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Default Grooming Linebackers the Steeler Way

By JUDY BATTISTA
Published: January 31, 2011

DALLAS — Before he became one of the best linebackers in football, James Harrison was just another Pittsburgh Steelers project, a raw player plucked from practice squad anonymity so confused by the complexities of Dick LeBeau’s defense that he would stop cold in the middle of a play, with no idea where to run as the action continued around him.

Harrison was not alone in his bewilderment. Clark Haggans, who spent eight years with the Steelers before signing with the Arizona Cardinals, said that in his first year after he was a fifth-round pick in the 2000 draft, he chose the opposite tact. When he did not know what to do, he blitzed — the team is nicknamed Blitzburgh, after all — hoping that he had guessed right.

“ ‘Oh, I was supposed to cover? My bad,’ ” Haggans says now. “I knew I had to get it right or I’d be gone. Playing there isn’t typical.”

He added: “Around the N.F.L., you play them because of the money you’re giving them. Pittsburgh doesn’t do anything until you know your football.”

For 40 years, Pittsburgh has churned out linebackers as reliably as the old mills forged steel. Jack Lambert’s jersey remains a best seller 21 years after he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and his ferocious play — pummeling quarterbacks, pounding running backs — set the standard for a franchise that will try to win its seventh Super Bowl on Sunday the old-school way, with defense. Lambert and his teammate and fellow Hall of Fame member Jack Ham were both second-round draft picks. But it is the current iteration of the Steelers that has come close to perfecting the care and feeding of linebackers, unearthing them even in the draft’s late rounds, sometimes changing their positions, keeping plenty of them in the pipeline and then making them sit, marinating in a difficult defense until its details seep in.

It is an approach summed up by the position’s current guru, the Steelers’ linebackers coach, Keith Butler.

“I don’t like rookies,” Butler said in an interview last week. “I don’t trust them. And until I’m comfortable with them, they won’t play. I usually get comfortable with them around their second or third year.”

The Steelers’ regimen makes a mockery of drafting for need and free-agent spending sprees. They have so many linebackers that they are able to let productive veterans go when it is time for their next big contract because there is a younger, often less expensive, version ready to step in.

This season’s group — part of the league’s top-ranked rushing defense (62.8 yards per game allowed) and the league’s leading sack defense (48) — might provide the clearest example of the Steelers’ method for building a seamless unit.

Harrison, who bounced among practice squads and did a stint in NFL Europe, did not start every game until his fifth year, after Joey Porter — groomed the same way, and with seven sacks in his final Steelers season — left for Arizona as a free agent. When Haggans left as a free agent in 2008, LaMarr Woodley, a second-round pick in 2007, stepped in to start and had 11.5 sacks. Lawrence Timmons was a first-round pick in 2007, but did not become a regular starter until 2009, when he had seven sacks. James Farrior is the lone free agent, and he started immediately after leaving the Jets and signing with the Steelers in 2002.

Only Farrior, at 36, is nearing the end of his career, although his 6 sacks and 80 tackles this season suggest he is not done. But last spring the Steelers drafted three more linebackers, producing a bounty so deep that they were able to waive their fourth-round draft choice, linebacker Thaddeus Gibson, when they had to make room for another defensive lineman. The Steelers kept another rookie outside linebacker, Jason Worilds, to back up Harrison and Woodley and perhaps to replace one of them someday. Stevenson Sylvester, a rookie taken in the fifth round, is likely to play inside linebacker eventually.

Butler has been the linebackers coach for eight seasons — an eternity by N.F.L. standards, especially considering he has worked for two head coaches — and he looks for two things when studying college linebackers: whether they can run and whether they can hit. Those things, Butler said, he cannot teach. Then the scouting department looks for flaws — drunken-driving incidents, domestic violence issues, some kind of physical shortcoming. Those players are downgraded on the Steelers’ draft board. If other teams take those players in the draft’s early rounds, it frees other good players to drop to lower rounds, where the Steelers hope to scoop them up.

Sylvester has a flaw that only a football savant can detect. He is straight-legged and high-hipped, Butler said, which limits his ability to change direction. That, Butler suspects, is why he was still available in the fifth round.

“He’s turned out to be pretty good for us,” Butler said. “We don’t hit on all of them, but we hit on enough to help us. People had a problem as to where to fit him. We felt like he could play inside linebacker for us because he had blitzing skills, he can run and he will hit you.”

Once they are in Pittsburgh, Butler puts the young linebackers through something of a linebacking university, conducting 45-minute sessions each Thursday and Friday morning before they go to special teams meetings. In those tutorials, Butler calls out the defense and the players must say what their responsibility is. Their learning curve is steepened because the Steelers frequently draft defensive ends and turn them into outside linebackers, as they did with Woodley and are doing with Worilds. They must learn to rush while standing up instead of having one hand on the ground, and to recognize offensive formations. The new Steelers linebackers learn at least seven pass coverage techniques, and the Steelers like to bolster their depth by having each linebacker able to play inside or outside. The defense also may have to make a half-dozen adjustments depending on if the offense puts a player in motion.

Haggans recalls Butler making fun of players if a mistake showed up on film, but he also said older players — who have been around Butler for so long that they complete his sentences — are like extra coaches helping younger players. The linebackers bond by spending extra time together, Butler included, sometimes pretending they are at a club, glow sticks provided by Larry Foote.

Still, the education takes time. Harrison had the Steelers’ secretaries type up wristbands of play calls and his responsibilities — base defense on one arm, substitution packages on the other — to help him learn the defense. Haggans said it took him two full years before he understood where players would be and why they were running a certain defense. Even Farrior, who had spent five seasons with the Jets before arriving in Pittsburgh, said he did not fully absorb the Steelers’ system right away. He offers the same advice to each young player as he arrives.

“It’s going to be overwhelming,” Farrior said he tells them. “You’re not going to get it your first time around. We always tell them when the light turns on and you start to get it, that’s when the fun happens.”

Stevenson, then, plays on special teams and sticks close to the veterans, biding his time for the opportunity that Farrior once assured him would come.

“Being in the N.F.L. is real tough,” Stevenson said. “Everybody on their team was stars. You’re lucky to get here. To think you’ll jump right in when there are already people here is ludicrous. As a rookie coming in, it’s a lot to put on you at first. It’s a lot of pressure in your mind. They try to limit what you’ve got to think about.”

Harrison remembers when he wondered if he understood what coaches were saying. Harrison said he finally grasped the defense about three years ago — not coincidentally the 2008 season, in which he had 16 sacks and was named the N.F.L.’s defensive player of the year.

But he has sobering news for the younger players hoping to follow his path.

“You never totally get it,” Harrison said. “We come in every season and Coach LeBeau has a new package of defenses. It’s not going to sit still. You have to evolve with it.”
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Old 01-31-2011, 02:34 PM   #2
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Default Re: Grooming Linebackers the Steeler Way

Harrison, who bounced among practice squads and did a stint in NFL Europe, did not start every game until his fifth year, after Joey Porter — groomed the same way, and with seven sacks in his final Steelers season — left for Arizona as a free agent. Porter signed with Miami not Arizonia
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