Steelers' Jones hopeful of replacing Harrison at linebacker spot
James Harrison couldn't do it. Neither could LaMarr Woodley nor Lawrence Timmons.
That's the challenge for Jarvis Jones, who is trying to become the first to do what none of Keith Butler's players has done in his 11 seasons as Steelers linebackers coach: start as a rookie in one of the NFL's most demanding and toughest-to-learn defenses.
There is so much to assimilate, recognize, and memorize, so much to remember that it can be overwhelming for a rookie, even one as naturally talented as Jones, the nation's leading pass rusher for Georgia last season.
“But I've learned that never and always are two words you should remember always never to say. So I'm not going to say that,” Butler said Wednesday. “It's something I learned a long time ago: You cannot say never. We'll see how he comes along, and we'll see how Jason (Worilds) plays. What's best for us as a team is what we're going to do.”
What Jones hasn't done in his first week of training camp is play himself out of a job. His natural talent is evident, but, as Butler said, learning Dick LeBeau's defense and how to play in it is not an overnight process.
“That little split second that you take time to think about what you're doing (when you're inexperienced) sometimes gets you beat,” Butler said.
Still, Jones does not look tentative or lost, and he's even shown some bursts of competitive confidence, such as when he said, “I brought it” during the backs-on -backers drill Monday.
But can he start, and now?
“I wouldn't be a competitor if I didn't (want to start),” Jones said. “It's something I'm challenging myself for. Clearly it's a coaches' decision. All I can control is coming to work every day and giving it all I've got.”
Finding the right starter — either Jones or Worilds, a former second-round pick — is critical because Harrison was such an integral part of a defense that was No. 1 overall twice in the past three seasons. He was a five-time Pro Bowl player whose meanness set the tone for a defense that always took the field with the persona that it would not be pushed around.
The Steelers must decide whether Jones can overcome making mistakes that someone like Worilds, with three seasons of experience, likely wouldn't make.
“You've spent a lot of time preparing James Harrison, teaching James Harrison the little idiosyncrasies of the defense, and that only comes with time and only comes with experience,” Butler said. “You lose that. All of them have to go through that period of learning how to play this defense.
“We don't feel like we're going to suffer too much as a defense if we can get these young guys to understand what we're trying to get done defensively.”
Jones said Steelers veterans have told him they're still learning the defense because LeBeau, given the situation, sometimes will simply make up a defense on the fly.
“The longer you play here, the more you have to learn,” Jones said. “The learning curve never stops.”
The season starts Sept. 8, and it might not be known until just before then whether Jones will be ready to start.
“It's not going to be given to him, but we'll give everybody an opportunity,” Butler said. “It's always, ‘Can we win with him, or who can we win with?' We're not going to set any depth charts. We're not going to say he's going to win the job because I don't know if he's going to win the job.”
Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.
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