Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Harrison, Woodley and Spence: Troubling Times With Linebacker, Inc.

The linebackers of the Pittsburgh Steelers received a lot of attention this past weekend. Normally, the team we've referred to before as "Linebacker, Inc." is used to receiving praise for it's traditionally stellar play at the position. Unfortunately, not all of the attention received this weekend was 'normal.'

The positive news of the last few days was regarding the coaches wanting outside linebacker James Harrison back next year. The upside of the recommendation being Harrison's getting better as the season wound down and healing to the point where he once again resembled the Silverback. The downside of it is what Ed Bouchette pointed out in his article on Sunday.

"Harrison was held back by knee surgery that was curiously delayed until training camp after the issue kept him from participating in most of the spring drills," Bouchette wrote. "He missed the first three games and took at least half the season before he returned to form. He started the rest of the 13 games and tied for the sack lead with six.

Bouchette continued by saying that "the coaching staff is counting on Harrison and {LaMarr} Woodley for 2013. Harrison's salary could be an issue as the team tries to get under the cap, but the coaches would like him back at right outside linebacker." - http://tinyurl.com/agk6olq

Harrison, will be 35 next season and scheduled to make $6.57 million. Recently through his agent, Deebo said that he's not interested in taking a pay cut. The problem is all that would be saved by a restructure is an approximate $1 million. For a team that is approximately $13.8 million over the $121.1 million Salary Cap, it's a very tough choice to make as to whether to find a way to keep him or to part ways.

As Bouchette also said, though, the coaching staff is depending upon someone else for next season as well.

After the season Woodley had, he's been questioned by some and castigated by (us) others. His production dropped off dramatically and was even outplayed by Jason Worilds who only started three games. Some even think he needs to stop with the photo shoots and commercials and to focus on football. Remember this one?: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CuKjpXcyXnM

Did that commercial scare you? If not, then you're probably a quarterback, because he didn't scare any signal callers this season. Woodley impotently squeaked out a total of 38 tackles and four sacks in 13 starts.

Worilds, who filled in when Woodley pulled a hamstring running to Krispy Kreme or sprained an ankle jumping for joy over a BOGO Whopper coupon, had 27 tackles and five sacks despite starting just three times. Yes, he saw action all season, but his snaps were still fewer than Woodley's...he just did more with them.

On Sunday, Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote that the Steelers coaches and teammates want Woodley to focus on more of an actual training/workout routine in the offseason to get ready for football. Also, in the article, an undisclosed teammate was quoted as calling Woodley "awful."

"He tells us he works out, but we didn't see it," said the teammate. "He wasn't in shape. That has to be a reason why he was always hurt." - http://tinyurl.com/awgd9ud

This caused a backlash that Steelers veteran free safety Ryan Clark said was evident of a "fractured" team and that whichever teammate said those words anonymously was "cowardly." - http://tinyurl.com/bzbwcjk

There's no doubt that Woodley underperformed last season. And as even his position coach said last preseason, his weight has been an issue. In the Bouchette article quoted earlier, the Steelers beat writer even said that Woodley "needs to specifically work on his hamstring issues because those can linger -- as they have for him -- if not strengthened."

Also, if I may here imbue this article with a bit of my anatomy and physiology training and knowledge, it isn't just a matter of strengthening the hamstring, but also of lengthening the fascia that covers the muscle in question.

Fascia is a colloid, a gel-like, fibrous connective tissue, that surrounds all of the body's muscles like stockings. If the fascia is "shortened," the muscle's ability to perform is hindered. Just as a muscle needs to be kept stretched and hydrated for maximum efficiency, so also the length and the pliability of the fascia needs to be maintained from origin to insertion.

This could be playing into Woodley's continual hamstrings issues. Something that hopefully his trainer, whomever that is (considering he turned down Tom Shaw's offer), explores as a part of his kinesiological regimen.

Regardless of how this eventually plays out, Harrison and Woodley are an integral part of the Steelers' offseason and season to come. The outside linebacker position is and always has been at center stage of the Steelers defensive attack. Being the subject of attack is definitely rare and uncomfortable.

Let's go inside for a minute and look at what the Steelers have and what they may need. It will be easier to approach it initially by going with what we know.

Lawrence Timmons arguably should have been in the Pro Bowl and is under contract, and Larry Foote led the team in tackles with 113 total. Foote is an unrestricted free agent has said he'd like to return and would take a pay cut to do so.

Inside linebacker Stevenson Sylvester is a restricted free agent and will likely be tendered at the original round level. That leaves Marshall McFadden (practice squad), Brian Rolle and Kion Wilson (Futures/Reserves contract players) as the only other ILBs who are under contract for the 2013 season.

Which brings us to Sean Spence. Though he is under contract, it isn't known whether he'll be ready for Training Camp or whether he'll be put on the Reserve PUP List to start the season. And even if he is back in time, will he be that same "see-to-do" player that head coach Mike Tomlin praised in last season's Camp?

Last preseason Spence tore his ACL, his LCL and dislocated his knee cap. A very serious to his left knee that begs the question of whether or not to move forward regardless.

If Kevin Colbert and Tomlin err on the side of caution and select an ILB fairly early in April's NFL Draft, there are several viable candidates from which to choose. NFL.com listed the top five pre-Combine ILBs, which can used as a reference point. Those men are Alec Ogletree (Georgia), Manti Te'o (Notre Dame), Kevin Minter (LSU), Kevin Reddick (N. Carolina) and Kiko Alonso (Oregon). - http://tinyurl.com/aal5qf4

Since I don't expect them to take one in the first round, I would consider Te'o out of the equation. Add to that Ogletree's recent DUI and you can probably scratch him off of the list.

That leaves Minter, which is a plausible choice, Reddick and Alonso. As the NFL Combine takes place, also look for what Alabama's Nico Johnson does.

Whomever they choose, the need to return to Steel Curtain or Blitzburgh dominance is imperative. It doesn't require a ton of research to know the level of play has dropped off. Is Linebacker, Inc in danger of shutting down its assembly line? The plant may not shut down, but the products coming out aren't top of the line right now, either.