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Young Steelers defenders face crucial offseason

| Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014, 10:10 p.m.
Jarvis Jones, 2013 Steelers headshot
Jarvis Jones, 2013 Steelers headshot

Linebacker Jarvis Jones spent much of his rookie season trying to harness the unabashed enthusiasm that enabled him to torment quarterbacks during his college career at Georgia.

The Steelers' first-round pick quickly realized that patience and smarts are valued more than athleticism in a defense that consistently ranks among the league's best. He couldn't deviate from a time-tested scheme to exploit the physical gifts that piqued the Steelers' interest prior to last year's NFL Draft.

“I didn't start understanding the game until I got to Georgia,” said Jones, who spent his freshman season at Southern Cal before moving to Athens, Ga., in 2010. “I was playing as an athlete. I was running around making plays.

“At this level, you have to recognize formations, personnel and clock management — all kinds of stuff you never thought about in college. When people look at football they see only the physical part, but the mental part is the most challenging aspect of playing in the NFL.”

At midseason, the lofty expectations that sometimes haunted Jones were slowly tempered by the fact that few rookies easily fit into the 3-4 defense designed by defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.

As a result, Jones seldom showcased the explosiveness that made him a feared pass-rusher in the SEC. He played well in spurts, but tallied only one sack — 13 12 fewer than the school record he established at Georgia in 2012.

“At Georgia, I had more freedom,” he said. “In this defense, discipline is critical to what we're doing as a unit. At Georgia, guys played off me and the coaches allowed me to make plays. I had responsibilities, but my teammates fed off me. I was able to be an athlete.”

Ultimately, with injuries to linebackers Larry Foote and LaMarr Woodley, Jones was thrust into the spotlight along with two other rookies — inside linebacker Vince Williams and safety Shamarko Thomas.

“Hopefully, these young guys will learn from this experience,” LeBeau said prior to the season finale against Cleveland last month. “You're never satisfied but they're making progress.”

Thomas, selected in the fourth round along with quarterback Landry Jones, will begin mini-camp and OTAs as a potential starter if veteran Ryan Clark doesn't return. Williams, a sixth-round-pick, will face plenty of competition when training camp opens in July, mostly from free-agent rookie Terence Garvin.

“The young guys really stepped up,” Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu said. “Clearly, they are going to impact the organization.”

The Steelers may seriously consider drafting an inside linebacker early, but LeBeau feels confident about his young corps of linebackers. But there are legitimate concerns about the future of Jason Worilds, Woodley and Foote.

“We never looked at ourselves as rookies, so we never put ourselves in a position to make excuses for our mistakes,” said Williams, who finished with 40 solo tackles and 13 assists. “We wanted to take advantage of our opportunities.

“I'm looking at the offseason as a way to break myself down, rebuild myself and get better. I'm going to always keep that hunger. I'm going to always remember that I'm a sixth-round draft pick fighting to make the team.”

Thomas, however, positioned himself to be a starter, in part, by absorbing as much knowledge as possible from Clark and Polamalu.

“They are more than mentors. They were like brothers,” said Thomas, who had a combined 29 tackles. “They taught me how to take care of my body and deal with the ups and downs of a long season. I'm not trying to replace either of those guys. I'm still trying to learn from them.

“In this league, teams looked at me as the weakest link. It made me work hard on my technique.”

The defense, which struggled during a 2-6 start, pulled itself together during the second half of the season as the Steelers finished 8-8 for the second year in a row. The progression of the first-year players on defense gives coach Mike Tomlin hope that the teams will be back in the playoff mix for the first time since the 2011 season.

Jones, the 17th overall pick, started eight of 14 games. He saved his best for last as he had a season-high eight solo tackles along with one assist in a 20-7 win over the Browns.

“I made a few plays here and there,” Jones said. “I'm still learning the game — and this system.”

Worilds' move to left outside linebacker paved the way for Jones to make a second impression when Woodley was lost for the season with a right calf injury in a win over Cincinnati on Dec. 15. Jones said he will spend the offseason learning the intricacies of a defense that sometimes limited his effectiveness.

“You get so much information, it's hard to grasp all of it,” Jones said. “The harshest reality was that no one was going to wait on me. Everything was coming fast, and while I was trying to remember stuff, the ball was snapped.”

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