One of the elements that goes into the making of a dynamic 3-4 defense is having linebackers who can both rush and cover. Beyond not having to swap out personnel, having linebackers who can both rush and cover can create a shred of doubt in the opposing quarterback as well as in those players charged with protecting him.
When you think of the premier Steelers linebackers dating back to 1992 when Bill Cowher brought together Dick LeBeau, Dom Capers, and Marvin Lewis to come up with the basis of the 3-4 scheme the team still employs today, the names that rise to the top – in some kind of chronological order – are Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Chad Brown, Levon Kirkland, Jason Gildon, Joey Porter, James Farrior, James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, and Lawrence Timmons.
The best of those best when it comes to the ability to rush and cover are Lloyd (53.5 sacks and 10 interceptions) and Porter (60 sacks and 10 interceptions). Both played the 3-4 outside linebacker position with distinction, and Mike Tomlin is of the belief that Porter can call on his seasons of in-helmet experience to help develop some of the younger guys among the current crop of players there.
It makes sense to try, because there are elements of Porter's repertoire that would make Jarvis Jones, Sean Spence, Jason Worilds, and maybe even Lawrence Timmons better players than they are right now.
"Joey coming back, first of all, was exciting for the organization because of who Joey Porter was and who he still is," said General Manager Kevin Colbert. "We saw him at the Senior Bowl. We were aware of what he did at Colorado State last year. He did a nice job with those kids in one year."
The conversations between Tomlin and Porter about this assistant coaching role had their roots in the summer of 2012 when the Steelers brought back four of their marquee players for a "retirement" ceremony before the annual night practice at Latrobe Stadium. Aaron Smith, Marvel Smith, Willie Parker, and Porter were recognized that evening, and during his time on campus Porter and Tomlin got to talking.
The next step was Porter's seeking and getting one of the coaching internships the team offers during each training camp, and then Porter further displayed his interest in pursuing the profession with his work at Colorado State. Now, this.
"He was excited about the opportunity to advance," said Colbert. "Quite honestly, I think Joey is more excited about coaching for the Steelers than just coaching in the NFL. I think he was quoted as saying he only wanted to work either at Colorado State and here. I think that's a big reason why Coach Tomlin was interested."
That, and the fit with some of the existing personnel. The most obvious is with Jarvis Jones, last April's No. 1 pick, who is similar to Porter in stature and has flashed some of the skills that should allow him to become one of those linebackers who can both rush and cover.
"Joey can bring a certain element of pass rush expertise, and the exciting thing is that Jarvis and him are a very similar stature," said Colbert. "I think there will be some things Joey will be able to share with Jarvis that will help him be a better player. We're looking for a lot of improvement in Jarvis as a second-year player, as we do with any player in this defense. If the player is going to be a good player, there's usually a big jump from year one to year two. We are hoping that's the case. But Joey wasn't brought in here just for one player. The expertise he can lend to all of our pass rushers, interior people as well as the outside linebackers, can only help us."
While it's simple to project the impact Porter could have on the team's outside linebackers, there also is his experience as a middle linebacker in the dime defense that could be of help to Spence and Timmons, both of whom are inside linebackers by trade.
Timmons has nine interceptions over his first seven seasons but only 26 sacks. And while his sack total certainly is a reflection of his opportunities to rush the passer, a few tricks of the trade could benefit him in boosting those sack totals, which will help in attracting more individual recognition within the NFL while adding more of a splash-play element to the overall defense.
Spence is a complete unknown, after sustaining a severe knee injury in the preseason finale of his rookie training camp. For the past two seasons, Spence hasn't been able to practice football while rehabilitating his knee, and so he is somewhat of a blank canvas as this 2014 offseason gets underway.
After spending all of 2012 on injured reserve, Spence began 2013 on the physically unable to perform list. He was cleared in October, and the Steelers activated the three-week window where they could evaluate him during on-field practice sessions. Once the window expired, Spence was put back on injured reserve for the rest of the season.
"We had one great day of practice last fall that was very exciting for us and exciting for him," said Colbert. "Unfortunately, he broke his hand that same day. Maybe it was a blessing. Maybe that small sample he gave us was enough to get to show that he can be fully recovered from this injury. Whether or not he can sustain it through an offseason, a training camp, a preseason and a regular season, we don't know. But based on what he showed us with that one day of practice, we are very encouraged with where he is right now."
Colbert went on to characterize Spence as "in the mix as a possibility, but I think it would be naïve to say he is over the hump, because nobody knows that at this point."
What is known are these things: the Steelers need more production from their linebackers in 2014 if their defense is to return to a place among the NFL's best, and Joey Porter was a integral player for that defense at a time when it was among the NFL's best.
The hope now is that those things are related.