Oregon's Dion Jordan works out at the combine
INDIANAPOLIS – Used to be, the Steelers pretty much had their pick from this bunch. Used to be, but not anymore.
Monday's on-field sessions at Lucas Oil Field put the defensive linemen and linebackers through their paces, and used to be the Steelers were in the minority of teams that valued the Chad Browns and Jason Gildons and Joey Porters. From the early 1990s when the Steelers defense came to be known as Blitzburgh, the franchise never has spent a first-round pick on an outside linebacker for their zone-blitz 3-4 alignment. The 44th overall used on Brown back in 1994 is the highest.
But if Chad Brown were in this upcoming draft, the Steelers couldn't even count on him being there for them in the first round at No. 17 overall because so many NFL teams are playing the 3-4, switching to the 3-4, or employing some 3-4 principles in certain situations.
"Right now – I haven't counted it specifically – but I still think we are floating around 14 teams when it comes to 3-4 defenses," said General Manager Kevin Colbert. "There are only so many players to go around and so many players who fit that position. So, it's about a 50-50 split right now. We just have to evaluate for our own individual wants and needs."
During each of the previous two NFL seasons, the Steelers have finished No. 1 in the league in total defense in terms of yards allowed, but those units averaged only 36 sacks and 17.5 takeaways. The four other 3-4 Steelers units that finished No. 1 in the league in total defense – 2001, 2004, 2007, 2008 – averaged 46 sacks and 28.5 takeaways. Takeaways especially have been an issue, with the Steelers posting two of the five worst interceptions totals in franchise history in 2011 and 2012.
"On the defensive side, the statistics that probably go with (takeaways) the most are sacks and quarterback pressures. We haven't been where we need to be on that front," said Steelers President Art Rooney II. "I think that is something we also have to get better at. We have to get more pressure on the quarterback. There's no doubt. Anybody will tell you that (pressure) creates turnovers."
The Steelers typically take the approach that game production carries more influence than workout numbers, but there is some value in the gauging of athletic skills, of the kind of movement skills players will be asked to call upon in the NFL that might have been unnecessary for them in college.
Among the names drawing attention at this Combine as possible 3-4 outside linebackers in the NFL include Oregon's Dion Jordan, Georgia's Jarvis Jones, LSU's Barkevius Mingo, Florida State's Bjoern Werner, Texas A&M's Damontre Moore, Texas' Alex Okafor, and certainly BYU's Ziggy Ansah.
Those are the names, and the bodies attached to them seem to come in increasingly large sizes – 6-foot-5, 274 pounds for Ansah; to 6-4, 261 for Mingo; to 6-7, 248 for Jordan – but history shows the Steelers are more interested in movement skills than they are hung up on heights and weights. Jones is a rather typical 6-2, 243, and while his production cannot be questioned – he posted 28.5 sacks in his last two seasons at Georgia and led the nation with 14.5 in 2012 – his medical could be a problem because he was diagnosed with stenosis, which is a narrowing of the spine, as a freshman in college.
"Unfortunately, there is nothing he can do to alleviate the medical concerns," said NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock. "He either has stenosis or he doesn't, and it's either continuing to narrow his spine or it isn't. Coming out of the Combine in a month or so we'll have a better idea of that, but let's take that off the table for a second and assume it's not a problem. He's explosive, a playmaker. He fits in a 4-3, which is what he played in college, but teams like Pittsburgh don't care as much about length as some of the other 3-4 teams do. Pittsburgh looks at an outside linebacker and says, hey, he needs to be explosive, he needs to be able to disengage from blocks, and he needs to be able to pressure a quarterback. LaMarr Woodley, that's who their guys look like."
Okafor, at 6-1, 264, also looks like that, but three guys who definitely do not are Jordan and Mingo and Ansah.
Jordan comes to the NFL with only 12.5 sacks in his last two seasons at Oregon, but the five he posted in 2012 are mitigated by a torn labrum he played with for more than half of that season. Jordan opted to work out at the Combine before having the labrum repaired, and it's expected he will need three-to-four months to rehabilitate after surgery. Adding to all of the intrigue here is that Jordan was sufficiently athletic to be recruited to Oregon as a wide receiver but now lists his best attribute as "pass rush."
"It shows my athleticism," said Jordan about rushing the passer. "I can line up all over the field and get after the quarterback, and just use my speed. Just having the speed to come off the edge every play. I never came off the field. I was on the field all three downs, even four downs if you needed."
Mingo posted a career-high eight sacks in 2011 in a three-year career at LSU that had him finish with 15. Because of the way he was used college, Mingo's showing here could increase his value if he impresses in the drills designed to measure the ability to play in space.
"He's got a little stiffness to him," said Mayock about Mingo. "He obviously runs very fast. When the ball goes away from him, he's fantastic. He's a run-and-chase linebacker. He's got upside as a pass rusher. There's nothing about the kid I don't like, but I just don't see a top 10 guy today. To me I'd feel much more comfortable with him as a developmental 3-4 outside linebacker. Somebody who would go somewhere between 25 and 40. I know everybody's got him in the Top 10, but I just don't see it right now."
Ansah is more interesting right now for his background than for anything he actually has already done on a football field. Born in Ghana, Africa, where his parents and four siblings still live, Ansah played basketball and soccer as a boy and went to BYU because he's a Mormon. In college he initially played basketball and ran track, and his understand of the sport of football is still in its infancy. In his only season as a starter at BYU, he often didn't know where to line up, but because he had 4.5 sacks and shares some characteristics with Jason Pierre-Paul, Ansah is being talked about as a potential No. 1 pick in this draft.
"I couldn't wait to see (Ansah) at the Senior Bowl," said Mayock. "I thought he had an average week of practice, and in the one-on-one pass rushing drills, defense should dominate and he didn't dominate. I just think he's so raw that sometimes it's can't come out. Now, can he play 3-4 outside linebacker? He's so gifted, some teams are looking at him as a 3-4 outside linebacker while other teams are saying with that frame, he could be 290 pounds and be a 3-4 defensive end. He's way more raw than JPP was a couple of years ago. People want to use that comparison, but he's not there yet. But I think he's going to become a good player."