Monday, June 01, 2015

To take Harrison's place, Steelers' Jones needs strong grip

Saturday, May 30, 2015, 10:00 p.m.

James Harrison and Jarvis Jones at orgazined team activities May 27th.

His grip isn't strong enough yet. Jarvis Jones knows that must change if he wants to keep James Harrison from ripping the Steelers' starting right outside linebacker job from him.

So to beat out Harrison, Jones joined him for workouts — and, more important, mentoring sessions — that may shape the future of the Steelers' most prominent defensive position.

“It was pretty awesome,” Jones said. “He's been an open book. I think he's a future Hall of Famer. So I watched and learned and listened to everything he had to say.”

Harrison's message was the same Joey Porter once passed to him: Win during offseason workouts to win on the Sundays and Mondays during the NFL season.

Might seem strange for a veteran to bring along his replacement, but that's the way it works at this particular position for the franchise that has made it a calling card. The Steelers Way is to be ready with a Next Man Up. And that Next Man has often gone onto great things.

But Jones isn't Harrison in shape, form or temperament, and that might be why he's been a tough sell to a Steelers Nation that likes its outside backers to be just plain nasty.

It's all right for everybody to settle for just plain good, and I predict Jones is about to show us he'll at least become that.

He opened last season with 14 combined tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble. That happened in three games. He showed glimpses of becoming what the Steelers believed he would when they selected him 17th overall in the 2013 NFL Draft.

What you might not remember about Jones' start to last season was how rarely he was pushed backward at the point of contact, the inside-rush technique he began to develop, the flow that showed because he better understood one of football's most complicated defenses.

Hey, I had forgotten about all of that, too. I knew Jones played in the Steelers' final five contests after a long absence, but I had to look it up for confirmation. He was in on four tackles. How many of those do you remember?

I cannot remember the last time an early-season injury so changed a Steelers plan. Tommy Maddox going down and Ben Roethlisberger coming in comes to mind, and that was in 2004.

When Jones was sidelined with a dislocated right wrist after Week 3, the Steelers turned to Harrison, who had retired a month earlier. By the time Jones was ready to play two months later, he had become the Steelers' equivalent of Wally Pipp. The difference was Harrison had already been a Lou Gehrig-like figure, and Steelers players — including Jones — acted like they were the luckiest men on the face of the earth just to have Harrison around.

It was weird.

Jones clearly was the future and looked up to the task before he was injured. In his absence, Harrison recaptured enough of his glorious past to shape the present. And here, Jones is a perceived bust-in-waiting even though Harrison offers probably the best evidence for showing patience with young pass rushers.

An undrafted free agent, Harrison collected all of four sacks in his first three seasons. He didn't get into double digits until his fifth.

Of course, by the end of that season, Harrison was pro football's finest defensive player, not to mention the spiritual heir to the likes of Porter, Greg Lloyd and Jack Lambert — linebackers whose ferocity, if not meanness, symbolized Steelers football.

Jones senses he doesn't fit the mold.

“I think what Pittsburgh is used to is LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison, and I'll never be those guys,” Jones said. “Those guys are 260, 270 (pounds). When I get old one day I'll probably be 260 or 270, but that ain't me … 250 is fine for me.”

He's supposedly too small at 6-foot-2 and those 250 pounds, but I've never seen a blocker pancake him. Also, having covered the Super Bowl and watched the more athletic linebackers of the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks, I'm at least intrigued that Jones prefers to be labeled “an athlete” instead of a power rusher.

Harrison, Porter and Lloyd were hardly one-trick pass rushers, by the way. Those three outside linebackers — tops among many good ones to play for the Steelers over the past 30 years — combined for 183 sacks and 26 interceptions during their tenures.

To fully grasp this position for the Steelers, the outside linebacker must have a firm grip on defending passes as well as rushing the passer.

The only thing about Jones that I doubt is his grip. As Trib Total Media's Mark Kaboly reported during Week 1 of the Steelers' organized team activities, Jones said he “still (has) some strength, motion and mobility stuff I'm working on” during ongoing rehabilitation of his wrist.

The Steelers' Next Man Up has always needed strong hands.

In Jones' case, they're needed to help hold back a legend.

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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