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Injury-thinned Steelers linebackers corps stands tall in win over Falcons

| Monday, Dec. 15, 2014, 11:06 p.m.
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Steelers linebacker Jarvis Jones runs off the field after the game against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, Dec. 14, 2014, in Atlanta.

Steelers linebackers took some heavy blows Sunday, but they bounced back to make the plays that mattered in a 27-20 victory over the Atlanta Falcons at Georgia Dome.

It didn't look good when inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons dropped to his knees after twisting his back. Then, linebacker Vince Williams lumbered off with a stinger.

The Steelers already were thin at the position, with 12-year veteran James Harrison dressed in sweats. And the team's past two No. 1 picks, Jarvis Jones and Ryan Shazier, are still on the mend.

Jones and Shazier played for the second week in a row — albeit sparingly — after missing significant time. They had a combined two tackles, but they've added depth to a defense that rotates linebackers in both the base and sub-package sets.

Jones, who missed nine games with a right-wrist injury, played mostly on special teams. He twice broke up the Falcons' wedge on kickoff returns to free up safety Shamarko Thomas to wrestle down feared return specialist Devin Hester inside the 15-yard line.

The Steelers, though, may need Jones to split duty with Arthur Moats in the final two regular-season games, beginning with Sunday's encounter with the Kansas City Chiefs (8-6), who will arrive at Heinz Field trying to keep alive their AFC playoff chances.

“We played the whole game and kept the fire,” Jones said. “The Falcons made their plays, but we stayed with it and finished it.

“I didn't make any plays, but I felt comfortable out there. I was doing my assignments within the offense. So, I felt I did a pretty good job.

“I got more snaps, especially in the nickel package,” added Jones, a Georgia product who had 30 family members among the thousands of Steelers fans at Georgia Dome. “I played a lot of situational football, especially in the nickel.”

The defense did enough to keep the Steelers within a half game of division-leading Cincinnati, but again it failed to register a sack. Jones, with uncertainty surrounding Harrison's knee, will be counted on to put the heat on Kansas City quarterback Alex Smith, who hasn't thrown a touchdown pass to a wide receiver in more than a year.

“He's still growing,” Timmons said of Jones. “This is a complex defense, so nobody comes in here and rips it. I'm looking for him to pick it up some because he's been putting in the work even when he wasn't playing.”

The injury-plagued Jones twice hurried Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, and he delivered a hit that forced a third-down incompletion in the fourth quarter. He also helped seal the edge to slow down running back Steven Jackson in the second half.

“I feel it's coming back,” Jones said. “I'm not where I want to be yet. I feel like I need to make plays, especially with so much at stake the next couple of weeks.

“The defense is playing well, so I don't feel as if I have to go outside the box to do extra stuff. As long as I come in to help the defense get off the field, I feel like I'm doing my job.”

For now, Jones' primary job is on special teams. But defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau suggested last week that last year's top pick may be asked to do more, especially if Harrison doesn't return until the postseason.

“When (Jones) gets back into flow, he'll do things more instinctively because of muscle memory,” Timmons said. “There's no doubt he has the talent, so I'm confident he's going to contribute in a big way.”

Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rpaulk@tribweb.com.

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