For the entirety of his professional career, Pittsburgh Steelers’ outside linebacker Jarvis Jones has received more scrutiny than any other athlete on the team’s roster.
The Steelers’ first round draft selection in 2013 was, perhaps unfairly, tasked with beginning a new regime of linebackers after many instances left them depleted at the position. A lackluster rookie season in which he only recorded one sack and a sophomore campaign limited by a broken wrist led many to question if Jones should be a part of the team after his rookie contract expires in 2016.
Jones’ third season at the professional level has been one based on expectation. With an injury free season to display his talents, the young linebacker has fought to make his presence felt at the position on a defense full of talent. The emergence of Bud Dupree as a threatening pass rusher has left him out of the spotlight at times when he is performing just as well, or better, than this year’s first round draft pick.
The Steelers’ coaching staff has made it clear that they expect progression out of Jones this season. Even with the return of James Harrison he was entrusted with a starting position at the beginning of the season and has retained it through twelve weeks. His two sacks, forced fumble, two fumble recoveries, and one interception are all career highs. If not for a healthy rotation at the linebacker position these numbers could be higher.
The Steelers’ quartet of outside linebackers (Jones, Dupree, Harrison, and Arthur Moats) have amassed fourteen sacks so far this season. If they continue to perform as well as they have, the pace is set to surpass the nineteen sacks the linebacker corps tallied last season. Although Jones’ two sacks rank last among his position, the lack of numbers in that statistic do not reflect his improvement as an athlete.
With only four games left in the regular season the Steelers have a fight on their hands as they attempt to secure a wildcard berth to make the playoffs. The AFC North division title is well out of their grasp, so they must win the remainder of their scheduled games to have a shot at getting into the post season. In order to do this, Jones must help lead the charge on defense for a strong finish against the Cincinnati Bengals, Denver Broncos, Baltimore Ravens, and Cleveland Browns.
Although he did not have the three sack night that Harrison recorded last Sunday, Jones made a significant play to keep the Colts out of the end zone on their first drive of the night. Immediately dropping back into coverage, he was able to easily snag an interception off of quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who zeroed in on one receiver from the beginning of the play. Not only was it the first interception of Jones’ career, but a perfect example of how red zone defense should be played.
The remaining offenses on the Steelers’ schedule have the potential to be tough opponents. The Bengals offer the toughest challenge, as Andy Dalton has had the best season a Bengals’ quarterback has recorded in franchise history. The Steelers came very close to defeating them earlier in the year, but lost a heartbreaker at home with a final score of 16-10.
Jones must display dominant pass rushing and run stopping this coming Sunday when the Steelers travel to Cincy to take on their biggest division rival this season. The linebacker rotation will keep him off the field more than he would like, but must take advantage of the time when he is out there. Increased productivity on the field now will see him receive more snaps as the season draws to a close.
How the remainder of the season plays out for Jones could determine how the Steelers plan for their future at outside linebacker. A performance that helps guide them to the postseason and beyond will give the organization the assurance it needs to be comfortable with Jones as a figurehead on the defense and to sign him to a long-term contract when the time comes.
The alternative would be the Steelers’ drafting yet another high round outside linebacker in the 2016 draft and preparing him to eventually replace Jones on the roster. The same result happened with Ziggy Hood when he failed to live up to expectations. Cutting a first round draft pick is not something out of the realm of possibilities for head coach Mike Tomlin and defensive coordinator Keith Butler.
For the sake of the organization, and the sanity of Steelers’ Nation, all hopes are riding on a breakout month from Jones. It may have taken longer than many hoped for, but the former first round pick must continue to play the type of football that has been expected from him since the moment he donned a Pittsburgh Steelers’ uniform.
It is time for Jarvis Jones to “Unleash Hell” in December.