Since the way the position is played is changing, it's appropriate that the people being asked to play it are changing as well.
When the Steelers defense takes the field as a unit during the first of 10 OTAs today, there will be no No. 51 in the center of the huddle. There still is a No. 51, but rookie Sean Spence will be on the sideline when the call goes out for "first Okie."
James Farrior is gone, and while there will be attention paid to the issue of who replaces him at inside linebacker, an even bigger issue for the Steelers as they prepare for the 2012 NFL season is how the position of inside linebacker has evolved and whether they have the personnel to deal with that.
Used to be that inside linebackers made tackles on running plays. Find the ball, get the man carrying it on the ground. That's how Jack Lambert played it once Chuck Noll switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4 in the early 1980s. Then David Little after him, and Levon Kirkland after him and Earl Holmes after him and Farrior after all of them. But running the football isn't as big a part of contemporary NFL offenses, and teams have become both unapologetic for that and creative in ways not to do it.
Take the Baltimore Ravens, for example. A division rival, a team that embraces the violence of the sport, an offense that still will line up a 260-pound fullback in front of a 218-pound tailback. Yes, the Ravens do that, but they now also have the capability to complement that beef with a couple of athletic tight ends who have to be covered down the field. The 275-pound inside linebacker might work OK when the task calls for butting heads with Vonta Leach and getting Ray Rice on the ground, but when it comes to running with Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson, well, not so much.
And besides, as linebackers coach Keith Butler explains it, even against the run, the position has come to require more stealth and speed than strength and power.
"The day of the (isolation) with the middle linebacker is almost gone," said Butler. "Everybody is using tight ends as fullbacks, and sometimes they use them when trying to lead and sometimes they don't. A lot of stuff today is misdirection and trying to fool you or out-number you one way, and then give you a different look coming back the other way. A lot of that requires the linebackers to have the ability to read now-a-days, not so much to get down and stuff a hole. Sometimes you have to (stuff a hole) on the goal line when you have to take on a big running back, but we're taking on Ray Rice, we're not taking on Jerome Bettis anymore."
Without Farrior, someone will be taking on the role of defensive signal-caller, and both Butler and coordinator Dick LeBeau firmly believe that someone will be Larry Foote. And both of them are quite comfortable with that.
"I don't think we will miss a beat there. Larry has called signals quite often," said LeBeau. "The other comforting factor for me is we are signaling in the calls anyhow, so whoever is out there is going to be taking our calls. It's the poise and the field generalship of the man whose voice they are hearing in the huddle – he has to command their respect, he is our quarterback, he is the voice they hear. I'm very glad Larry Foote is going to be that guy."
The other guys the Steelers have in the upper portions of the depth chart at the position are Lawrence Timmons, Stevenson Sylvester, Mortty Ivy, and the aforementioned rookie draft pick, Spence. From these five most likely will be the group the Steelers take into the start of the regular season, and the group figures to include no more than four.
While much of the early interest could focus on the Steelers adapting to Farrior's absence, the critical element of the whole thing should be the continued development of Timmons. In the run-up to the 2011 season, Timmons, the former No. 1 pick of the team's 2007 draft, looked very much like the next in the long line of excellence the Steelers have had at linebacker. Evidently management agreed, because Timmons was rewarded with a contract extension before the team left Saint Vincent College last summer.
The two sacks and one interception Timmons would contribute during the regular season weren't up to the splash-play expectations he carried last season, but both Butler and LeBeau commended him on some of the team-first things he did that likely impacted his individual statistics.
"Lawrence Timmons moved around. He's played inside and outside," said Butler in reference to Timmons being the go-to guy when the Steelers were forced to compensate for the injuries to James Harrison and/or LaMarr Woodley.
"I would prefer to leave Lawrence inside and give him a chance to get some of the recognition. I feel like he'll play well enough to get the recognition that he deserves, because I believe he's one of the better linebackers in the league. If we can keep him at one position, inside, then he has a chance to be one of the better linebackers in the league."
Another interesting contestant here is Sylvester, a fifth-round pick in 2010 who looks most like the prototype inside linebacker, and who has done some prototypical things in terms of what the position long has required.
"Stevenson has made his living doing a great job in the special teams aspect, and I always found that guys who can excel in that area generally can transfer it over to scrimmage play," said LeBeau. "You're moving in space, locating the ball, getting through blockers and getting the ball carrier on the ground. These are exactly the things you have to do as defensive player. I'm usually comforted by a defender who is doing well on special teams. Sylvester has done that. He played some for us, not a whole lot of game experience, but in the preseason when he went out there he did a very fine, capable job. He's going to have to step up and give us depth there. I'm very confident that he will."
And as for Spence, right now he'll need to follow the path Sylvester initially used to earn a roster spot, because, as Butler already said, "He's not going to start at 'mack' linebacker over Lawrence Timmons. That isn't going to happen. He's going to help us on special teams."