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Versatility key to LBs' success

For just about any NFL linebacker, the glowing stat-line that reflected James Farrior's brilliant all-around performance against the Philadelphia Eagles on Nov. 7 would have been impressive. But for the Pittsburgh Steelers standout inside 'backer, an overnight sensation eight seasons in the making, it was a coming out party of sorts.

Five tackles. One sack. An interception and ensuing 41-yard return. And a 27-3 victory over the Eagles, the second straight lopsided win for the Steelers at Heinz Field over a previously undefeated opponent.

"I always thought," said Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb early this week, recalling the game of two months ago, "that (Farrior) was an excellent player. But in that game, I guess this season in general, he's been even better than excellent. He's had a great year. Pittsburgh, they've always had tremendous linebacker play, really. (But) Farrior made a big impact, obviously, when we played them."

McNabb is right on both counts. The lineage of superb linebackers in Pittsburgh is a long one. With Farrior and teammate Joey Porter headed to Hawaii next month, the Steelers have now placed 15 different linebackers in the Pro Bowl game since 1970, totaling 45 appearances in the all-star contest. The history of Steelers linebackers includes two Hall of Fame members, Jack Ham and Jack Lambert, and an estimable litany of guys who would easily qualify for the Hall of Very Good, like Andy Russell, Mike Merriweather, Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Levon Kirkland, Jason Gildon and Porter.

And now Farrior, it seems, belongs in such elite company.

In his eighth NFL season, a campaign when he finished as the runner-up to Baltimore Ravens strong safety Ed Reed for defensive player of the year honors, Farrior certainly has become an individual force.

Signed by the Steelers as an unrestricted free agent in 2002, following five years in which he played both outside linebacker spots for the New York Jets in a 4-3 front, the former first-round draft pick found a niche in the middle of the Pittsburgh 3-4 alignment. Last week, as Jets officials made excuses about the business side of why they had allowed him to depart as a free agent, Farrior did what he has done all season.

Went about the business of making plays.

Few linebackers in recent seasons have enjoyed the kind of success in diversity Farrior has experienced in 2004. He registered 95 tackles, three sacks, four interceptions, eight passes defensed, three forced fumbles and three recoveries. Not bad for a guy who, even having played weak-side linebacker in New York, never had more than two sacks in any season, whose career interception total was three entering the '04 campaign, and who had only four fumble recoveries in seven previous seasons.

Not bad, either, considering that over the last several seasons, the linebacker position in general seems to have been devalued a bit league wide. The premium positions have now become guys who can knock down passes (especially with the emphasis this season on the illegal contact rule in the secondary) or, even more so, pass-rushing linemen who can knock down the quarterback before he even gets rid of the ball.

The linebacker position has enjoyed some resurgence this season, however, and Farrior is one of the several reasons for the turnaround. In the absence of much-injured Kendrell Bell, a onetime defensive rookie of the year who has been a non-factor for the Steelers all year and who likely will exit in free agency in two months, Farrior has become the main inside playmaker in the Pittsburgh linebacker quartet.

Because of the manner in which the Pittsburgh outside linebackers are deployed in the 3-4 front, almost always moving forward and used as pass-rushers in "nickel" situations, they typically draw the most attention. Farrior, though, has conjured up memories of the esteemed Kirkland, a big man with deceptive range, a player who could step up into the hole and stuff a tailback on one play, and then somehow get his 280 pounds deep down the middle of the field to swat away a pass on the next snap.

"Probably the thing that's most demanding, but that I also enjoy the most (about the Dick LeBeau defensive scheme), is the different responsibilities you have," Farrior said. "They ask the linebackers to do a lot in this defense. A lot of linebackers around the league have become specialists, kind of, but you've got to be able to do more than just one thing to be an (effective) linebacker in this defense. I mean, linebackers are important here, for sure."

Fact is, that is the case with the remaining four defenses that will play this weekend for the right to advance to Super Bowl XXXIX.

Particularly for the Patriots, where every Bill Belichick defensive game-plan doodle, it seems, begins by filling in the linebacker corps responsibilities before moving to anything else. Atlanta has what is arguably the best front four remaining in the postseason, but weak-side linebacker Keith Brooking is the Falcons' most versatile front seven defender. Eagles coordinator Jim Johnson, the impresario of the creative blitz scheme, orchestrates a lot of what he does by moving his safeties around, but linebackers were a huge element of last week's victory over Minnesota, and figure to be a key component this week to trying to corral slippery Falcons quarterback Michael Vick.

And within the various linebacker groups, there have emerged key players, like Farrior, Brooking, Philadelphia's Jeremiah Trotter and Tedy Bruschi of New England. All four are capable of making just about any kind of play imaginable -- a tackle, sack, fumble recovery or interception -- at a white-knuckle juncture of the game.

"He's pretty much at the heart of everything that we do," said Patriots outside linebacker Willie McGinest, speaking of Bruschi. "When it's 'winning time,' you know, late in the game, and you need a play, he is always there. He plays every phase of the game really well. Stuff the inside run? Yeah, he can do that. Go into the flat or the hook zone and cover a back or a tight end? Yep. Surprise the quarterback by coming up the middle on a blitz? Check. He's done all those things."

The irony is that Belichick, the NFL's reigning defensive genius, has always constructed his defensive schemes around hybrid-type outside players. McGinest, who has played in both a two- and three-point stance over his long career, is the model of what Belichick has long sought at the position: athletic playmakers who can move around and perform a variety of tasks, defenders who can't be pigeonholed, savvy guys capable of authoring a game-altering play when put into the right circumstance.

Such players, like starting outside linebacker Mike Vrabel, permit Belichick to disguise his fronts and coverages, because he hasn't relied on situational substitution packages as much as many of his peers. But while the outside 'backers have long been the focus of the Belichick scheme, Bruschi has been a fulcrum. He epitomizes the selfless, team-first guys Belichick covets, and his individual success is always secondary to team goals. It's hard, though, to ignore the individual numbers: 120 tackles, 3½ sacks, three interceptions, three passes defensed and three forced fumbles in 2004.

In Brooking, the Falcons have another of the do-it-all kinds of linebackers still playing with a shot of going to the Super Bowl. The veteran moved back to the weak-side spot this season, after three years of playing either middle linebacker in the 4-3 or inside 'backer in the 3-4 scheme, and has re-emerged as more than just a tackling machine. Ironically, when Brooking came into the NFL, most scouts projected him as a weak-side linebacker because he was such an obvious "space" defender.

Brooking played the role of good soldier when the retirement of longtime Falcons star Jessie Tuggle precipitated a move to the middle. But while his tackle totals rose -- and he averaged nearly 200 stops per year playing inside -- his meaningful plays declined. One of the first things rookie coach Jim Mora did when he assembled his defense was to identify Brooking as the guy whose skills most suited the weak-side spot in his scheme.

"He's a guy you want running around," Mora said. "I mean, you look at his past, and he never blitzed all that much. We saw him as a guy with those kinds of skills. He has the skills set we want at that position and he's played it well. You want to turn him loose, not recklessly mind you, but with a chance to run free and get to the football."

Until last Sunday afternoon, when he registered one of the best performances of his NFL career, Trotter wasn't exactly known for his movement skills. But at midseason, mightily frustrated by his unit's shortcomings against the run, Johnson installed Trotter into the starting lineup, and has since increased his duties beyond just going from tackle to tackle, playing in a phone booth to stuff the run.

Remember, Trotter was an afterthought signing by the Eagles in the summer, a two-time Pro Bowl performer who exited Philadelphia after the 2001 season in a contract dispute. Released by the Washington Redskins after two years, for salary-cap considerations, he mended fences in Philadelphia, signed a one-year contract for the minimum salary, and has resurrected his career.

Despite starting only nine games, Trotter was chosen for a third Pro Bowl appearance, mostly because he was the most critical component in remedying the running defense deficiencies that dogged Philadelphia earlier in the season. Against the Vikings, he became a whirling dervish, notching seven tackles, one-half sack, an interception and two passes defensed.

Such an all-around performance was unusual for Trotter -- certainly, that kind of stat line would be more anticipated from any of the other star linebackers who will appear this weekend in the conference championship games -- but he clearly enjoyed the experience of being such a defensive centerpiece.

And he wouldn't mind the opportunity to do it again.

"I hope they throw all kinds of stuff at me (this week)," said Trotter, who supplanted Mark Simoneau in the starting lineup. "The more I can do to help win the game, the happier I'll be, you know?"

It's a refrain, it seems, that echoes the sentiments of a lot of linebackers this week.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.