PITTSBURGH — Keith Butler sat Jason Worilds down over the summer and laid it all out there. No real need to ignore the stakes. Not when they're this high.
Over the course of their conversation, the longtime Pittsburgh Steelers linebackers coach said it's time to get serious for the player the organization is tasking with becoming the next link in a linebacker heritage that stretches from James Harrison to Joey Porter to the foundation of the Steel Curtain four decades ago.
"He's got a lot of stuff in front of him in terms of how the rest of his life goes," Butler said. "He knows that."
And just in case Worilds ever needs a reminder, a quick glance at the extra zeroes on his paycheck provides proof.
The Steelers rewarded Worilds for his breakout 2013 season in which he led the team with eight sacks by cutting veteran LaMarr Woodley and handing Worilds a one-year deal that bumped his salary to $9.75 million, 10 times the amount he made last fall.
While Pittsburgh hoped to sign Worilds to a more salary cap friendly long-term contract, the two sides remain apart heading Sunday's opener against Cleveland. If the season begins without an extension, the next four months will turn into one long extended tryout.
If the 26-year-old Worilds can bump his sack total to double digits while helping lead the Steelers back to the playoffs, he'll become one of the highest paid players at his position in the league.
And if he doesn't? Well, the understated Worilds isn't quite ready to go there.
"I don't really try to look that too far ahead," he said. "I just try to be the best I can day in and day out and hopefully everything will fall into place."
They did last fall when Worilds finally stepped out of the considerable shadow cast by Harrison — released in March, 2013 — and the talented but often injured Woodley. Worilds survived an early season benching in favor of rookie Jarvis Jones to become the force the Steelers were envisioning when they selected the former Virginia Tech star in the second round of the 2010 draft.
Butler could see it coming. Stuck behind two Pro Bowlers early in his career, Worilds struggled with his confidence, his health and his and his sense of place, a common malady for linebackers trying to transition into defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's intricate 3-4 scheme.
"Jason's always been a fast guy," Butler said. "He didn't always know exactly what he's doing. Sometimes he'd be hesitant in what he's doing but he's always been fast. If he got the chance for an extended period, he was going to be good."
That chance didn't come until the Steelers were off to a bumpy 0-4 start, exacerbated by a pass rush that lost some of its signature snarl. Worilds provided the needed spark. His No. 93 jersey a blur at times as it sped past sluggish offensive tackles, Worilds delivered on his considerable promise as Pittsburgh rallied to 8-8.
Pittsburgh saw enough from Worilds to eat a sizable chunk of the money it owed Woodley and invest a portion of the rest on Worilds, who lacks Harrison's menacing persona and Woodley's "Superkick" sack dance but tries to make up for it with quickness and guile. Press Worilds on if he has anything special planned if should he find himself on top of Cleveland rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel on Sunday and he just shakes his head.
"I'm not into that cute stuff," Worilds said with a laugh.
That's fine by the Steelers. It's telling of the way both sides do business that Worilds' uncertain status hardly came up during training camp even as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger politely dealt with a series of questions about his future even though he's signed through the end of 2015.
There's little doubt Roethlisberger is a part of Pittsburgh's long-term plans. Worilds hopes to say the same. Until then, he's OK with having to prove 2013 was no fluke.
"I just have to do it every time I step on the field," he said. "That's the only way for you to be the player you aspire to be, for us to be the defense that we aspire to be."
A defense that needs Worilds to lead a charge into opposing backfields. The Steelers finished with just 34 sacks last season, tied for 25th in the league. That number needs to go up even if Worilds declines to speculate on how many of those have to go next to his name.
"If I have 30 sacks and we go 8-8 really, what did we do?" he said. "We didn't do anything."
Worilds is exaggerating, at least a little. Six months from now he'll likely be signing a lucrative extension in Pittsburgh or looking for work elsewhere. His teammates aren't expecting him to go anywhere regardless of the pressure he faces at the moment.
"He knows his opportunity and he knows in order for him to get that money, he's got to produce," safety Ike Taylor said. "That's what he's going to do."
NOTES: WR Martavis Bryant (shoulder) and WR Lance Moore (groin) missed practice for the second straight day on Thursday and likely won't play on Sunday. ... TE Matt Spaeth (hamstring), LB Sean Spence (knee) and long snapper Greg Warren (knee) practiced and are expected to play.
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