Jason Worilds has done his best to block out the detractors, the ones that have second-guessed the Pittsburgh Steelers since the moment he was taken in the second round of the 2010 draft and anointed as the next great outside linebacker at a place where the position is revered more than most.
He’s the first to admit his production hasn’t matched his pedigree. Yet he doesn’t see himself as an underachiever but more of a victim of circumstance.
When the names in front of you on the depth chart are James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, sometimes you’ve just got to wait your turn.
That time, apparently, is now.
The 25-year-old is blossoming in his fourth season, playing so well on the right side that he sent highly touted rookie Jarvis Jones back to the bench and looking right at home on the left side while filling in for Woodley in last week’s 37-27 win over Detroit.
Worilds got his third sack in three games, a near-safety against Detroit’s Matthew Stafford in the third quarter, and added a career-high seven tackles. Suddenly, he doesn’t look so much like a bust as much as a player who needed time to mature in defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s intricate 3-4 defense.
“I don’t know what people think about me, but I expected a lot from myself,” Worilds said. “But I just don’t know if I’ve had that opportunity. I’ve tried to make the most of every opportunity that I get, and that’s what I’m trying to do right now.”
The Steelers have needed Worilds to take the next step after Jones struggled early in the season and Woodley was forced to sit out last Sunday due to a calf injury. His four sacks are second behind Woodley and he’s starting to do the little things that LeBeau holds in just as much regard any havoc he might create in the pocket.
Against Detroit he deftly sniffed out a screen pass to Reggie Bush and stuffed the play for a short gain. He was right in Stafford’s face on several occasions, forcing errant throws as part of perhaps Pittsburgh’s best defensive half of football on the season. After exploding for 27 points in the second quarter, the Lions were shut out over the final 30 minutes.
“Jason played really well, obviously, and he had a lot of splash plays, which everyone could see,” LeBeau said. “But he also had a lot of close-in plays that maybe only the (coaches) video could see.”
Plays that he made regardless of where he lined up. After spending most of his three years filling in sporadically when Harrison was unavailable due to injury or suspension, the Steelers had Worilds become an understudy behind Woodley on the left side. Call it careful planning. Call it a not exactly veiled glimpse of Worilds’ future as the team prepped Jones to become the player the Steelers thought Worilds would not.
Jones did find his way into the starting lineup briefly before growing pains forced him into a more reserve role. The decision to make Jones a situational player wasn’t just a matter of his coaches getting frustrated with his adjustment to the NFL. It was also a testament to Worilds’ perseverance.
Worilds didn’t take it personally when the Steelers landed Jones with the 17th overall pick. Just like he didn’t take it personally when they offered him a one-year tender rather than long-term contract after three sporadic seasons.
“I’m just here to play,” he said. “And sometimes, they have to make a business decision. And sometimes, it’s out of your hands, no matter what you do. So, you keep that in mind, but you have to keep trying to better yourself.”
Worilds will become a free agent at the end of the year. If he continues to keep finding his way to the football, there’s a chance he’ll be able to land a permanent starting job elsewhere. It’s difficult to imagine him holding off Jones much longer, and Worilds is OK with that. He’s more focused on helping the Steelers continue their unlikely climb out of a 2-6 hole on Sunday when they face Cleveland.
Woodley missed practice on Thursday, meaning there’s a chance Worilds could find himself lined up on the left side. It’s not quite the spot he envisioned on the day he was drafted more than three years ago. Still, he’ll take it.
“(My versatility) it allows me to go out there wherever they need me,” he said. “I’ll just try to perform.”
DE Brett Keisel (foot) and S Shamarko Thomas (ankle) also did not practice on Thursday. ... G Ramon Foster (ankle) was able to practice and should play. ... TE Matt Spaeth practiced on Thursday for the first time since sustaining a Lisfranc injury in his left foot in the preseason. The Steelers have 21 days to decide whether to place Spaeth on the 53-man roster.