Wednesday, November 2, 2011
Linebacker situation still cloudy for Steelers
PITTSBURGH -- James Harrison can see clearly through the protective shield on his facemask.
Whether the Pittsburgh Steelers All-Pro linebacker will be able to play on Sunday against rival Baltimore remains blurry.
Harrison practiced on Wednesday for the first time since fracturing the orbital bone over his right eye against Houston a month ago. Though he's relatively pain free, the 2008 Defensive Player of the Year is not going to put up a fight if doctors feel he's not healed enough to go full bore.
"I got two eyes, I'm not playing with my vision," Harrison said. "If they say no, I'm not going. That's not something I'm willing to lose."
At least Harrison practiced. Fellow starting linebackers James Farrior (calf) and LaMarr Woodley (hamstring) were "limited" on Wednesday and their status is uncertain.
If all three sit out, the Steelers (6-2) must find a way to go forward against the Ravens (5-2) with youngsters Stevenson Sylvester, Chris Carter and Jason Worilds playing significant roles. The trio have combined to play all of five seasons during their brief careers and none are older than 23.
By comparison Harrison, Farrior and Woodley have played a combined 28 seasons, been selected to seven Pro Bowls and won five Super Bowls.
While the Steelers live by the mantra "the standard is the standard," the potential replacements are well aware of whose shoes they're stepping into.
"You're talking about Pro Bowlers, potential Hall-of-Fame guys," Sylvester said. "I try not to look at it as pressure. I try to look at it as me doing my job."
Sylvester knows he'll have to do it well if the Steelers are to get a little payback for the 35-7 whipping they received at Baltimore's hands in the season opener.
Two months later, it still stings.
"You look at that film and how we fit gaps and how we tackled and ... everything was just wrong that game," Sylvester said.
And that was with their stars on the field.
At least one and possibly all three will be sidelined on Sunday, leaving Lawrence Timmons as the only healthy opening-day starter left and even he won't be in his normal position at inside linebacker.
The team moved Timmons outside when Harrison went down, where he's excelled despite limited experience rushing the quarterback.
Then again, maybe it's no surprise. The Steelers have been churning out Pro Bowlers at linebacker for decades, in part because of a mindset by the organization to draft versatile players.
"We don't get a lot of free agents ... and they come up through the system," nose tackle Casey Hampton said. "They come up and it's all you know so there's no room for you to revert back to bad habits. These are the only habits you know. That's why our depth and guys are so interchangeable, because they're in the system the whole time."
Every linebacker is required to learn how to play all four spots and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau freely mixes and matches combinations depending on matchups.
When Woodley went down in the second half against New England last week, the team immediately moved Woodley from the right side to the left side to make Timmons more comfortable.
Coach Mike Tomlin figured Carter, a rookie, would be nervous anyway so why not make him nervous while making his last remaining starter more effective at the same time.
Carter survived and the Steelers won 25-17, with Carter earning a measure of respect in the process.
"He far from perfect but he played hard, played fast and wasn't afraid of competition," Tomlin said. "It was a good place to start."
And Tomlin stressed it was just a start. More will be expected this week, though at least this time Carter and Sylvester will have a chance to prepare.
They'll certainly need it considering they could be placed anywhere on the field on a given play.
Yet it's what they're trained to do. The Steelers don't believe in drafting a linebacker and keeping him in one spot for a decade. Linebackers coach Keith Butler makes sure his players know all four spots in the team's signature 3-4 defense.
"He makes corrections, he coaches (every position) and he makes sure that guys are the hybrid type and you're paying attention to everything," veteran Larry Foote said. "Even if it's your first day playing, he expects you to know it and that's the way he controls the room like that."
Butler, however, can't control nerves and both Carter and Sylvester know there will be some jitters if their names are called when the starters are introduced on Sunday night.
When the game begins those jitters better disappear quickly. Foote knows his young charges don't have a choice.
"The expectations don't change and they're going to learn in a hurry about this game," Foote said. "Preseason is one thing. against the Patriots and the Ravens in the regular season it's totally different. But it's what guys have been doing their whole life."
They'll just have to do it at a level they've never done it before. The Ravens punished the Steelers in the opener, with Ray Rice running for over 100 yards and Joe Flacco tossing three touchdowns.
It's the kind of whipping the Steelers are used to dealing out, not taking. They may have to even the score with fresh faces. It's not exactly the way Sylvester wanted to crack the starting lineup, but he's eager to show the next wave of Pittsburgh linebackers are ready to, as Tomlin often says, "play above the line."
"It's prime time against your rivals and a top tier NFL team, that's all you can ask for," Sylvester said. "I'm going to go out there and show my best stuff."