In week 7 against the New England Patriots, the Pittsburgh Steelers juggled the linebackers on the roster. Lawrence Timmons played 95% of the snaps, while Anthony Chickillo (58%), Jarvis Jones (58%), Ryan Shazier (56%), Vince Williams (44%), Arthur Moats (42%), and James Harrison (42%) shared the remaining snaps.
In the Divisional Round against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Steelers linebackers almost stayed on the field for the entire game, with Timmons (100%), Shazier (100%), Bud Dupree (100%), Harrison (95%), and Jones (5%) seeing time.
While Timmons is a constant, Shazier has grown in skill over the course of the year, Harrison’s role has increased, and Dupree is finally healthy. The Pittsburgh linebackers “are playing at a very high level right now,” according to Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. The Patriots coach believes that the veteran Timmons and Harrison are helping Shazier and Dupree along the way.
“Their whole group seem to get better as the year goes on,” McDaniels added. “They’ve always had an element of those experienced veteran players really helping those younger players come along, and learn the system, and learn what it means to play the way they play in their scheme and their system. I think [Harrison and Dupree] are two good examples right there of guys that [are] much different in terms of their age and experience, but both physical guys, both very difficult to handle in the running game, set the edge in the running game and they do a good job of trying to knock people back. And then [they] can create pressure on the quarterback, whether it’s with speed or power, and they do it both.
“So, they fit into their scheme nicely, they’ve always done a great job of integrating young players into their scheme, because they know very specifically what they’re looking for. I think those two guys are a good example of what they’ve had for a long time and how they develop these young guys to play really well and integrate them into their system and into their defense.”
Dupree is in his second season in the NFL, but he missed the first 10 weeks of the 2016 season with an abdominal injury. He has 27 games of NFL experience.
Harrison is 38-years-old and a veteran of 205 games. He is a 2-time First Team All Pro with 81.5 career sacks. He also goes to the gym an hour after landing from a physical Divisional Round playoff game against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Shazier is in his third season and has 39 games of experience. Timmons is in his tenth season and has 171 games of experience. The Steelers have paired a savvy veteran with a young, rising star and have seen improved results after treading water over the first half of the season.
McDaniels noted Timmons’ and Shazier’s ability to generate pressure with blitzes up the middle, while Harrison and Dupree are “constantly involved in the rush as well.”
“It’s not just one guy,” McDaniels said. “That’s the biggest thing.”
The Patriots are coming off a weak performance against the Houston Texans linebackers, with Whitney Mercilus, Jadeveon Clowney, Brian Cushing, and Bernardrick McKinney disrupting plays at the line of scrimmage. While the Steelers linebackers offer different skill sets, Harrison is playing like he’s 28-years-old and Shazier’s athleticism could give the Patriots interior line fits with timed blitzes.
The Steelers have found a way to combine the old and the new, and it’s up to the Patriots to make sure Pittsburgh leaves Gillette Stadium with the same old result: a New England victory.