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There is something different about Jason Worilds in this Steelers training camp. He is The Man and the team expects big things from him.
After 3½ seasons of bouncing around on special teams, on the injured list and, occasionally, at outside linebacker, Worilds burst into the Steelers defense in the second half of last season.
And now as the Steelers end two weeks of training camp and prepare for their first preseason game Saturday night at the New York Giants, he has given every indication he is ready to resume that kind of play in 2014.
“I think he’s next in line to step up,” said defensive end Cam Heyward. “I think everyone only saw a taste of what he’s going to bring this year.”
Worilds has been a monster in these first two weeks, has avoided any nagging injuries and has a job he finally can call his own at left outside linebacker.
“I am excited,” Worilds said. “It’s a new year, you have new teammates, new guys on defense, a new chemistry, you’re excited about that.”
He has a new contract, too, that will pay him $9,754,000, more than any player on their defense. He helped force LaMarr Woodley right off the roster. Seven of his team-high eight sacks of 2013 came over a stretch of eight games when he settled into a starting role.
There remain those who doubt whether Worilds can continue that kind of pace since he did it for only half of one season over his previous four. The Steelers have had no discussions lately to sign him to a long-term deal, and he can become an unrestricted free agent next season if they do not.
Yet they also are counting on him to generate the kind of pass rush — along with others in the front seven — to put pressure on quarterbacks so they cannot pick apart their cornerbacks.
“He shouldn’t be right where he left off, he should be better than where he left off,” said Keith Butler, who coaches their linebackers. “I think he’s trying to do that, and we’re trying to hold him accountable for doing that.
“When much is given, much is expected. That’s evident in all the NFL. You can look at the NFL waiver wire every year, you can see a lot of good players who made a lot of money but their production is not at the same level as their money. As a consequence, they’re gone.”
That is one reason Worilds is in this training camp and Woodley is not. The Steelers can only hope he produces the way he did in the second half of last season, finally free of a wrist injury that required reconstructive surgery and hampered his progress for two seasons. His showing through two weeks of camp has given them reason to believe he will.
“He’s taken a business-like approach to it,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “He’s really thoughtful in his preparation. His technique is highly skilled, his hand usage has been good. He’s no-nonsense. He’s not a very vocal guy and things of that nature, but that’s Jason. I think his work has been really solid.”
Worilds turned his NFL prospects around last season. That wrist injury and players by the name of Woodley and James Harrison had kept him from making a run for a starting job in his first three seasons.
He had his initial opportunity last year when Harrison declined the Steelers’ offer to reduce his salary and signed with Cincinnati. That left the job at right outside linebacker wide open. Worilds started the first game but was quickly benched after that in favor of first-round draft choice Jarvis Jones, a move some saw as political.
When they realized Jones was in over his head, they put Worilds back out there.
He sacked quarterback Tom Brady twice in a loss against New England, but he flourished after Woodley left with an injury, opening a spot for him on the left side.
“I don’t know if it did anything for my confidence so much as it affirmed what I thought,” Worilds said of his performance in 2013. “You feel like you have the ability to go out there and perform and, when you get the chance to go out there and do that, it solidifies it.”
The Steelers are counting on him. Without pressure, opposing quarterbacks could find easy pickings.
“Absolutely, the coverage and rush go hand in hand,” Worilds said. “For us to be what we aspire to be, that’s going to be an integral part.
“I am going to be after the quarterback.”