Steelers 2020 Inside Linebacker Draft Needs: Ignoring the Position = Ignoring History

Outside linebackers may have compiled sexier highlight reels, but the inside linebackers have formed the heart of the Steelers defense since Chuck Noll made the switch to a 3-4 in 1982.

Think about it. Each generation’s linebacking corps is remember for its Greg Lloyd, Joey Porter, James Harrison and/or T.J. Watt. But those guys can only do their damage on the edge because players like Jack Lambert, David Little, Levon Kirkland and James Farrior have the center taken care of.

Ryan Shazier’s injury left the Steelers reeling at inside linebacker. Pittsburgh appeared to turn a corner in 2019, but does that mean they can ignore the position in the 2020 NFL Draft?

Devin Bush, Devin Bush touchdown, Steelers vs Chargers

Devin Bush dives for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Steelers Inside Linebacker Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Starters

In 2020 the Steelers will start a potent duo at inside linebacker, led by 2019’s first round draft pick Devin Bush, and Vince Williams who has manned the other starting linebacker position since his rookie campaign in the 2013 season.

  • At age 31, Vince Williams has never been and will never be a superstar.

But he very much is the type of player who helps teams win Super Bowls. No, that’s not a misprint. Mel Blount was far more important to the Steelers 1978 Super Bowl team, but it matters little of Ron Johnson had been a liability at the other cornerback position.

And Vince Williams has never been a liability, and when paired alongside a truly athletic inside linebacker, Vince Williams is very much an asset. He craves contact, is stout against the run and can pressure the passer when needed.

He’s the perfect foil to Devin Bush, who exploded early in his rookie season for 3 fumble recoveries, one sack, and a touchdown. As the season wore on, Devin Bush was eclipsed by Minkah Fitzpatrick, but all indications point to him being worth the hefty price Pittsburgh paid to make him a Steeler.

Steelers Inside Linebacker Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Back Ups

Mark Barron was an important part of the reason why the Steelers turned a corner at inside linebacker last year, and he is no longer on the roster. In fact, he was on the field for 69% of the Steelers defensive snaps as compared to Vince Williams’ 37%.

  • Alas, Mark Barron was a cap casualty, collateral damage wrought by the need to apply the franchise tag to Bud Dupree.

His departure was not unexpected, but perhaps Tyler Matakevich’s was, and together they’ve left the cupboard pretty bare at inside linebacker for the Steelers. The Steelers do have Ulysees Gilbert, whom they drafted in the 2019 NFL Draft, and Robert Spillane who was on their active roster for the 2nd half of 2019.

The Steelers 2020 Inside Linebacker Draft Needs

During the Tomlin era, inside linebacker really has been a boom-bust position for the Steelers. There’s been very little middle ground. When things go according to plan, the Steelers have been solid at inside linebacker.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

  • But of course, one needs to expect the unexpected in the NFL.

And that’s when inside linebacker has been a problem for Pittsburgh. Injuries limited Larry Foote’s 2013 season to a handful of snaps. He was first replaced by Kion Wilson whose NFL career would last for another six games.

Within a few game, Vince Williams had already replaced him, but the rookie Williams faced a steep learning curve at the expense of the Steelers defense. Something similar happened in 2017 when Ryan Shazier’s spinal injury ended his NFL career.

  • His back up, Tyler Matakevich, only lasted a few snaps, forcing Arthur Moats into the mix.

The Steelers signed Sean Spence after the mix, and it didn’t take long to see why Spence had been waiting for the phone to ring at home in December.

The point to this brief history lesson is that, while the Steelers have a strong starting duo at inside linebacker, depth is decidedly thin, meaning that the Steelers needs at inside linebacker going into the 2020 NFL Draft must be considered Moderate-High.

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Tyler Matakevich’s Special Teams Skill Secured a Steelers Roster Spot. Now What about a Second Contract?

Mike Tomlin makes no bones about it: The surest way roster bubble rookies can earn themselves a lot on the 53 man roster is to prove themselves on special teams.

One player who took that to heart and used special teams as to transform himself from Latrobe longshot is into a core special teamer is Tyler Matakevich who is now a free agent. The question is Matakevich role on special teams so cirtical that the Steelers offer him a second contract? We will soon find out.

Tyler Matakevich, Steelers vs Bengals

Tyler Matakevich at Heinz Field in the rain. Photo Credit: Pininterest.

Capsule Profile of Tyler Matakevich Career with the Steelers

Tyler Matakevich came to the Steelers as their second 7th round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Arrived in Pittsburgh to immediate comparisons to his position coach Jerry Olsavsky. The Steelers took Jerry Olsavsky as an 11th round pick in the 1989 NFL Draft. Olsavsky not only defied the odds and made the team, but took advantage of an injury to Hardy Nickerson to earn himself a slot on the 1989 UPI All Rookie Team.

Tyler Matakevich didn’t manage to make such an impact as a rookie, but early on in training camp it became clean that whateer Matakevich lacked in “Measuables” he made up for in heart and tenacity.

Matakevich led the Steelers in special teams tackles in 2016, and saw action at inside linebacker during the loss to the Dolphins. In 2017, Matakevich entered the season as the team’s top backup at inside linebacker and again led the Steelers in special teams tackles with 14. He also blocked two punts, one in the season-opener against Cleveland and another in the finale against Cleveland.

  • However, a shoulder injury prevented Matakevich from seeing any time at inside linebacker as Ryan Shaizer’s replacement.

Going into 2018, Steelers coaches clearly wanted Tyler Matakevich to earn the starting inside linebacker slot along side Vince Williams. However, as the summer progressed, first Jon Bostic and then L.J. Fort surpassed Matakevich on the depth chart. Nonetheless, logged 16 tackles and remained one of the Steelers top special teams players.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Tyler Matakevich in 2020

Quality special teams play might not be a critical component to winning a championship, but special teams breakdowns can sink a Super Bowl run in the blink of an eye (see the 1993 Steelers.)

  • Tyler Matakevich has been a pillar of the Steelers special teams for the last four years.

Moreover, as special teams is more about “want to” than anything else, Matakevich sets the tone for the entire unit. At inside linebacker Matakevich probably won’t be anything more than a “break glass in case of emergency” type player, but he knows the system and will always be active on game day.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Tyler Matakevich in 2020

The Steelers will likely cut Mark Barron to make salary cap room to keep Bud Dupree. While the Steelers are in good hands with Devin Bush and Vince Williams at inside linebacker, Tyler Matakevich will be the lone experienced backup at inside linebacker for the Steelers.

  • As stated above, he’s nothing more than a “in case of emergency, break glass” type replacement.

An injury to either starter at inside linebacker will leave the Steelers in the same place they were in 2013 when Larry Foote got injured an in 2017 when Ryan Shazier got injured. Tyler Matakevich tells a feel-good special teams story, but the Steelers need someone who can add value at ILB depth chart.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Tyler Matakevich

The Pittsburgh Steelers like Tyler Matakevich. “Dirty Red” is a core special teamer, and someone who is very good to have in your locker room. No other NFL team is going to the type of money at Tyler Matakevich that the Eagles threw at L.J. Fort last year.

Expect the Steelers to bring Tyler Matakevich at or near the veteran minimum level.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2020 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2020 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers Anthony Chickillo Is a Good 3rd Outside Linebacker Worthy of a 2nd Contract

The Pittsburgh Steelers have a rich lineage at outside linebacker which they’ve built using premium picks like Jack Ham, Joey Porter or LaMarr Woodley but also players such as Greg Lloyd and James Harrison who entered the league as afterthoughts.

  • Interestingly enough, for as strong as the starters have been, they’ve never really had much in the way of understudies of note.

That’s a bit of a contrast to inside linebacker, where Jerry Olsavsky and later Larry Foote (after his return) forged names for themselves as backups who could step in at a moment’s notice without the unit missing a beat.

Could Anthony Chickillo play that role at outside linebacker? As he reaches free agency we may soon find that out.

Anthony Chickillo, Steelers Browns 2017 opener, Anthony Chickillo Touchdown

Anthony Chickillo recovers a blocked punt for a touchdown in the 2017 season opener at Cleveland. Photo Credit: Scott R. Galvin-USA Today via BTSC

Capsule Profile of Anthony Chickillo’s Steelers Career

When the Steelers drafted Anthony Chickillo in the 6th round of the 2015 NFL Draft he was facing a depth chart topped by James Harrison, Jarvis Jones, Bud Dupree and Arthur Moats.

  • Just making the team was going to be a challenge.

But Chickillo made the team playing mostly on special teams where he forced and recovered a fumble. In 2016, Anthony Chickillo started a total of 7 games, both due to injury and a rotation system, where he recorded 2.5 sacks and forced two more fumble. In 2017 Anthony Chickillo only made 2 starts, but recorded 3 more sacks. He also recovered a blocked punt for a touchdown in the season opener against Cleveland.

In 2018 didn’t make any starts as the coaches scrapped the rotation system, in part to keep T.J. Watt on the field. Yet Chickillo’s snap count remain relatively constant, as he made 1.5 sacks and recovered two more fumbles.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Anthony Chickillo

In the age of the salary cap, depth can often be a primary difference maker.

If you think that’s just a cliché look at how the Steelers wide receiver corps struggled down the stretch in 2016 where the Steelers tried every possible combination of Eli Rogers, Cobi Hamilton, Sammie Coates or Demarcus Ayers and none of them could take heat off of Antonio Brown.

Anthony Chickillo isn’t going to be a prime-time starter at outside linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but he has done everything this team has asked of him. Anthony Chickillo has delivered when called upon. He’s provides a quality backup presence who can play at both sides as well as special teams.

Those are 3 good reasons to keep Anthony Chickillo in Pittsburgh.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Anthony Chickillo

Outside linebacker isn’t a position of strength for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and bringing Anthony Chickillo back does nothing to change that calculus. Sure, he does well enough in spot duty, but who is to say that Ola Adeniyi and Keion Adams can’t do the same, but for less money?

The Steelers have gotten good value out of Anthony Chickillo considering his status as a 6th round pick but he’s reached his ceiling and it is time to move on.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Anthony Chickillo

Well, unlike Jesse James, there are no reports of other teams rushing to sign Anthony Chickillo away from the Steelers. And that’s not a surprise.

Last year when Anthony Chickillo was a restricted free agent, staff writer Tony Defeo was of the opinion that Anthony Chickillo was perhaps worth tendering, but nothing more. Yours truly labeled him as someone who was “starter capable.”

  • A year later, it seems like the truth is somewhere in the middle.

Anthony Chickillo perhaps isn’t “starter capable” but he’s hardly a roster bubble baby. No, Anthony Chickillo has proven he’s ready to be a number 3 outside linebacker in the NFL, and that makes him valuable to Pittsburgh.

The Steelers should see that in him and they most likely do, and will keep in in Pittsburgh.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers Resign Vince Williams Proving Opportunity + Tenacity = NFL Success

The Greeks called it “Fate.” Machiavelli used “Fortune.” But whatever term you choose, Vince Williams 4 year contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers proves that NFL success is all about capitalizing on opportunity.

  • The Steelers signed Vince Williams to a 4 year contract worth a reported 20.6 million dollars that will keep the inside linebacker in Pittsburgh through 2022.

The move ensures that all projected starters form the Steelers 2018 defense will remain under contract for 2019, promising stability for a unit struggling to recover its swagger. But for Vince Williams the move marks the latest milestone in one of the more unheralded players of the Mike Tomlin era.

Vince Williams, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Bengals, Vince Williams Steelers contract

Vince Williams sacks Andy Dalton in Dec 2017. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Vince Williams: From Street Clothes to a 3rd NFL Contract

Its hard to know what the Steelers plans where when they drafted Vince Williams in the 6th round of the 2013 NFL Draft. Most likely, they viewed him as an insurance policy in the event that Sean Spence couldn’t recover for the devastating injury he’d suffered in preseason the summer before.

Vince Williams looked good in preseason, but the Steelers clearly didn’t see him as game day material as he stood in street clothes during their 2013 opening loss against the Titans.

You remember that game, the one that cost the Steelers Maurkice Pouncey, LaRod Stephens-Howling and yes – Larry Foote. Both the Steelers, and Vince Williams could do no more than watch as Kion Wilson entered alongside Lawrence Timmons.

But Williams saw action the next week against the Bengals, and by the time the Steelers played the Vikings in London, he was making his first start. But Williams struggled and often times was a liability in a Steelers defense that was slipping.

  • By the end of the year, Williams had improved, particularly against the run.

Fate, however, refused to deal Williams an easy hand. Sean Spence recovered, and the Steelers drafted Ryan Shazier in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft. Instead of returning as a starter, Vince Williams would have to again earn a roster spot at St. Vincents.

Vince Williams proved his worth, and while Ryan Shazier started, Williams and Spence split time while Shazier was out with injury for much of his rookie season. Williams continued to see regular action in 2015, and the Steelers, in what amounted to minor surprise, offered him a three year extension in the summer of 2016.

The Steelers let Lawrence Timmons walk to Miami and Vince Williams took over his spot in the defense. While it may be hard to remember, the Steelers 2017 actually carried the team during the first half of the season and even flashing greatness prior to the Ryan Shazier and Joe Haden injuries.

  • One Steelers blogger privately suggested that replacing Timmons for Vince Williams might have been one of the prime reasons.

Other fans will beg to differ and still see Vince Williams as a liability. Clearly, the Steelers view Vince Williams differently.

If the data on the site Sportrac is reliable, Vince Williams new contract makes him the 16th highest paid inside linebacker, as measured by contract average. That puts him in about the middle of the back in terms of NFL starters, which sounds about right, if perhaps a little high.

Steelers 2013 draft class, Steelers 2013 draft grades, Le'Veon Bell, Jarvis Jones, Vince Williams

Steelers 2013 draft picks Vince Williams, Le’Veon Bell & Jarvis Jones. Photo Credit: Pininterest

In 2017 Vince Williams was third on the team in tackles, and second in sacks behind Cam Heyward with 7. Inside linebackers in the Steelers defense only put up those kinds of sack numbers when they’re doing something right.

Vince Williams is never going to offer the athleticism that Ryan Shazier, Lawrence Timmons or even James Farrior brought to the position. He’s much more of a player in the Larry Foote mold, a bruiser, a guy who makes contact, and a guy who can be counted on to bring down a running back at or behind the line of scrimmage.

  • And Vince Williams is at his best when paired with an athlete of Shazier’s pedigree.
  • It remains to be seen if how well Williams will play alongside Jon Bostic.

Regardless, Vince Williams is a player who brings it all on every down and uses the full force of his physicality to oblige the offense to earn every yard it advances. And the Steleers have made it clear the want to keep that in Pittsburgh for the next four years.

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The Colbert Record: Steelers 2013 Draft Grades Are In: C+ Overall

It’s time to grade the Steelers draft. No, not the Steelers 2018 Draft but rather the Steelers 2013 draft.

You know, the draft that saw the Steelers make a bold trade involving a third round pick, replace a veteran wide out and draft of a quarterback? Sounds like the Steelers 2018 draft, doesn’t it? The comparison is intentional because reinforces a fundamental lesson:

  • Accurately grading an NFL draft class takes time.

The Steelers 2018 draft class has spawned waves of criticism, while the Steelers 2013 draft class won its share of instant applause. SB Nation gave the Steelers 2013 draft an A, NFL.com  awarded it an A-.

  • Those grades don’t look so sharp today, do they?

Which doesn’t mean the Steelers 2013 Draft was a failure, but rather one that contained both failure and success as you’ll see below.

Steelers 2013 draft class, Steelers 2013 draft grades, Le'Veon Bell, Jarvis Jones, Vince Williams

Steelers 2013 draft picks Vince Williams, Le’Veon Bell & Jarvis Jones. Photo Credit: Pininterest

Steelers 2013 1st Round – Jarvis Jones – Bust

Is there anything new to say about Jarvis Jones? There’s not much. But it is useful to remember that Bucky Brooks of NFL.com claimed Jarvis Jones was the best pick made in the entire AFC North. Mel Kiper lauded Jarvis Jones as a “great pick.”

  • Other analysts, such as Gil Brandt, remained skeptical.

The skeptics were right. The Steelers were perhaps too patient with Jarvis Jones (ah, if only James Harrison had been on the field against Dallas….) As it is, Kevin Colbert’s first and only unqualified first round bust is Jarvis Jones. Grade: Bust.

steelers, draft, grades, evaluations, bust, Kevin Colbert

True NFL Draft grades only come with years of hindsight

Steelers 2013 2nd Round – Le’Veon Bell – Grand Slam

Chris Burke of Sports Illustrated conceded that Le’Veon Bell “Fits this offense but may not have warranted pick 48.” Mel Kiper Jr. wasn’t thrilled with the Le’Veon Bell pick, but leave himself wiggle room by suggesting Bell might benefit from the Steelers line.

Le’Veon Bell’s 2nd franchise tag contract squabbles have damped his popularity, but Meril Hoge hit the nail on the head when he declared Le’Veon Bell the best back taken in the 2013 NFL Draft. Grade: Grand Slam.

Steelers 2013 3rd Round – Markus Wheaton – Serviceable Pickup

Nothing against NFL.com’s Bucky Brooks, but Brooks commended the Steelers for making Markus Wheaton the AFC North’s “steal of the draft.” Markus Wheaton wasn’t a steal. “Serviceable” is a better word to describe Markus Wheaton.

  • 3rd round picks should become starters, and Markus Wheaton started 22 games his two healthy seasons with the Steelers.

He wasn’t a superstar, but in some ways Markus Wheaton’s ability to come up with clutch third down catches brought to mind Hines Ward’s early years in the trenches. But injuries marred Markus Wheaton’s rookie and 4th seasons, Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown missed Markus Wheaton him down the stretch in 2016.

The injuries weren’t his fault, but they limited Markus Wheaton’s value to the team. Grade: Serviceable Pickup

Steelers 2013 4th Round A – Shamarko Thomas – Bust

The Steelers, like the rest of the league have been more active in trading for players, but trading away future premium picks to move up in the draft goes against the Steelers DNA.

And Shamarko Thomas shows way. The Steelers traded up to get Shamarko Thomas, and Mel Kiper Jr. hailed the move as a great value add. Shamarko Thomas arrived in Pittsburgh as Troy Polamalu’s heir apparent. He departed as an afterthought.

Aside from some immediate work with the secondary during his first few rookie games, Shamarko Thomas’s defensive snap total might be countable on a single hand. Thomas was a good gunner on special teams, but players that cost you a 4th and next year’s third round pick must deliver more. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2013 4th Round B – Landry Jones – Quality Value Pick

The 2013 NFL Draft marked a change in the Steelers backup quarterback philosophy. The Steelers had always staffed a veteran backup quarterback since Bill Cowher’s 1992 arrival.

Picking Landry Jones in the 4th round of the 2013 NFL draft was the product of Pittsburgh’s pivot. He wasn’t NFL ready in 2013 and or in 2014, but fought off 3 challengers at St. Vincent’s during the summer of 2015 as Landry Jones worked his way past Mike Vick for the number 2 spot and closed key victories against Arizona and Oakland in the process.

A large and vocal contingent of Steelers Nation remain hardened Landry Jones haters, but he’s worked himself into a competent NFL backup. Grade: Quality Value Pick

Steelers 2013 5th Round — Terry Hawthorne – Bust

In 20/20 hindsight, this move seems like another Steelers attempt to reload at cornerback on the cheap. But that’s not a fair assessment. Ike Taylor hadn’t shown signs of slowing in 2012, and Cortez Allen’s play late in 2012 made him appear like a stud poised to blossom.

  • And with William Gay’s return, the Steelers cornerback depth chart looked solid in the spring of 2013.

None of this changes the fact that Terry Hawthorne, Illinois the cornerback, both failed to catch on in Pittsburgh and elsewhere. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2013 6th Round A – Justin Brown – Disappointment

Justin Brown made the practice squad in 2013 which isn’t bad for a 6th round pick.

  • Word at the end of 2013 was that Justin Brown was looking good in practice.

Justin Brown made the regular season roster in 2014 and saw 21 balls thrown his way and he caught 12 of them. Still, as the Steelers closed in in the playoffs in late 2014, they deemed Brown expendable and he’s been heard from since. Grade: Disappointment

Steelers 2013 6th Round B – Vince Williams – Over Performer

Vince Williams experienced baptism by fire NFL style when an opening day injury to Larry Foote sent him from street clothes to starter in 3 weeks.

Vince Williams, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Bengals

Vince Williams sacks Andy Dalton in December 2017. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

  • And make no mistake about it, Vince Williams struggled for much of the 2013 campaign.

Yet Vince Williams improved by season’s end, and did well in relief of Ryan Shazier, Sean Spence, and Lawrence Timmons during 2014, 2015 and 2016. The Steelers signed him to a contract extension in 2016 season, and year later he was starting in Timmons place.

Vince Williams isn’t an athlete who’ll compel fans to command he shift to safety. But Vince Williams is a physical player and an asset when surrounded with the right players – you don’t get 8 sacks as an inside linebacker by accident. Grade: Over Performer

Steelers 2013 7th Round – Nicholas Williams – Farm Team

On the day he was drafted, Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell compared Nicholas Williams to Steve McLendon.

The Kansas City Chiefs reduced John Mitchell’s comparison to an academic one by poaching Nicholas Williams from the Steelers practice squad in 2014.

Pro football Reference tells us that Nicholas Williams made 26 appearances for the Chiefs and Dolphins from 2014 to 2016. Grade: Farm Team

Grading the Steelers 2013 Draft – C+

With 9 picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, the Steelers draft report card spans the spectrum, with 1 Grand Slam, 3 Busts, 1 Serviceable Pickup, 1 Disappointment, 1 Over Performer, 1 Quality Value Pickup and 1 Farm Team pick.

  • If you agree that a good draft should yield 3 starters, then the Steelers came up OK in 2013.

The fact that within 2 years, “experts” were labeling the 2013 NFL Draft as one of the worst overall drafts in recent league history only reinforces that assessment.

Yes, its true that only Vince Williams and Le’Veon Belll are starters, but Markus Wheaton was a legitimate starter when healthy, and Landry Jones was drafted to be a backup. And any draft that brings home a talent like Le’Veon Bell is by definition an “Above the Line” draft.

  • Yet, the Steelers 2013 NFL draft class was hardly an unqualified success.

The Steelers missed badly on Jarvis Jones and Shamarko Thomas. Both of those misfires carried costly opportunity costs as forced Pittsburgh to redraft for the positions by picking Sean Davis in 2016 and T.J. Watt in 2017.

  • You can take the country from the boy, but you can’t take the boy from the country.

The part of me that was raised and reared in the US system of grading is tempted to give the Steelers 2013 Draft class a B-, “Good, but…” rating, but here in Argentina (where I’ve lived most of this century) grading is much more demanding, and so therefore I’ll give the Steelers 2013 Draft a C+.

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Steelers 2018 Inside Linebacker Draft Needs – How to Replace the Irreplaceable Ryan Shazier?

“An NFL player’s career can end in a second.” It’s a cliché which gets throw around far more frequently than it actually happens. But lack of frequency that doesn’t do anything to dilute the cliché’s fearsome truth.

Will Ryan Shazier play again? He vows to, and God knows everyone is rooting for him to do it, but Ryan Shazier is only barely walking again. The loss of Shazier devastated the Steelers defense and it is no secret that it greatly impacts their plays at inside linebacker for the 2018 NFL Draft.

Vince Williams, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Bengals

Vince Williams sacks Andy Dalton in December 2017. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Steelers Inside Linebacker Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Starters

Vince Williams inherited the role as leader of the Steelers inside linebacking corps when Shazier went down as he was in the process of having the best year of his career. The truth is, that Vince Williams simply lacks the athletic ability of either Shazier or his predecessor Lawrence Timmons. He’s more of a bruiser in the Larry Foote mode.

  • More knowledgeable football minds have taken issue with Vince William’s ability over on Steel City Insider.

These commenters know more about football than yours truly and, with that conceded, the far more pedestrian analysis here is that when paired alongside a superb athlete, Vince Williams is solid inside linebacker; absent that athletic presence, he’s going to struggle a bit.

To fill the hole created by Shazier’s absence, the Steelers turned to Jon Bostic, a veteran with experience starting experience gained in Chicago, Indianpolis and New England.

  • Bostic was in fact a 2nd round pick by the Chicago Bears in the 2013 NFL Draft and is a fine athlete.

The worry/knock on Bostic is that he has a history of injuries, which limited him in 2015 and cost him the entire 2016 season. Still, when healthy Bostic has been effective, and word is that he is a suburb tackler.

Steelers Inside Linebacker Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Backups

Losing Ryan Shazier taught the Steelers a hard lesson: Depth may look solid on paper, but sometimes that fails translate on the football field. Within a few plays of losing Shazier, his primary backup, Tyler Matakevich, also go injured.

No problem, the Steelers still had L.J. Fort whom they’d groomed for several seasons, and Arthur Moats could move inside in a pinch, couldn’t he?

  • Neither of those options worked out well, so the Steelers signed Sean Spence off the street.

Unfortunately, Sean Spence was out of football for a reason. Even when accounting for his rustiness, Sean failed to provide the stability in place of Shazier has he had done during 2014 and 2015.

Steelers 2018 Inside Linebacker Draft Needs

The needs assessment of the Steelers at inside linebacker prior to the 2014 NFL Draft revaled just how quickly an area on the depth chart can jump from a position of weakness to one of strength. The Steeler of wisely ignored that, and drafted Ryan Shazier anyway.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

  • This year, Shazier’s injury reveals how the reality plays out in reverse.

The Steelers depth at inside linebacker is perhaps thinner than at any other area on the roster.

The Steelers apparently have a lot of confidence in Tyler Matakevich, if 2nd hand accounts from beat writers are any sort of guide. Like his inside linebackers coach, Jerry Olsavsky, Tyler Matakevich is one of those late round players who isn’t supposed to be big enough or fast enough but has a motor that never quits.

  • Fair enough. If Tyler Matakevich develops into a Jerry Olsavsky like player, then he’ll be an asset to the Steelers.

But even if that happens, he still lacks the athleticism to complement Vince Williams effectively. As they have done at safety, the Steelers have wisely signed Jon Bostic which will free them for needing to reach to fill the position. However, the Steelers 2018 draft needs at inside linebacker must be considered High-Moderate.

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The Wild Ride of William Gay’s Steelers Career Comes to an End. Thank You Big Play Willie Gay!

In a long anticipated move, the Steelers cut William Gay the veteran cornerback who has served as a pillar of stability in Pittsburgh’s secondary for the last decade. In doing so they severed ties with the final draft pick from the 2007 NFL Draft, the Steelers first draft with Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin at the helm.

Defensive back is a young man’s game, and William Gay will be 4 months shy of his 34th birthday on the Steelers opening day in 2018. He also carries a $1,750,000 salary that the Steeler figure to use more constructively elsewhere.

Judging by his Instagram post, he isn’t ready to being “Life’s Work” but with his time in Pittsburgh over, we now look back at the wild ride that was William Gay’s Steelers career and take a moment to say “Thank you Big Play Willie Gay.”

William Gay, William Gay Pick Six, William Gay interception, Big play Willie Gay, Steelers vs Falcons

William Gay’s 52 yard pick six vs Falcons in 2014. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

2007-’08 – William Gay Goes from “Trying to Survive” to Starter

With Ike Taylor, Deshea Townsend and Bryant McFadden topping the depth chart, cornerback didn’t figure to be a priority for Pittsburgh in the 2007 NFL Draft. After going (almost) all-in on defense by drafting Lawrence Timmons, LaMarr Woodley and Ryan McBean with their first, second and fourth picks the Steelers went back to defense in the 5th round, drafting William Gay out of Louisville.

As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell pointed out, when questioned about an impressive preseason outing Mike Tomlin responded “William Gay’s just trying to survive!” William Gay not only survived but contributed in his rookie year, but his efforts were confined to special teams and spot duty in the secondary.

  • But it was in in 2008 William Gay began to turn heads.

Due to injuries, Gay made 4 starts at cornerback and effectively alternated with Bryant McFadden at other times. The Steelers 2008 defense was a special unit, and Gay’s played a small, yet important role in their success that culminated in Super Bowl XLIII.

William Gay played so well in 20018 that made Bryant McFadden expendable as he departed for Pittsburgh West aka Arizona.

2009 – William Gay Not Ready for Prime Time

Unfortunately, William Gay wasn’t quite ready for Prime Time.

  • 2009 proved to be a rough year not only for Gay, but for the entire Steelers secondary.

Troy Polamalu got injured in the season opener, and the Future Hall of Famer only played 4 more games that season. The rest of the Steelers defensive backfield struggled in his absence. By late November Steelers 2009 secondary was shell-shocked, and William Gay was in far enough in over his head that Mike Tomlin rotated Joe Burnett with him in the Steelers infamous ’09 loss to Cleveland.

William Gay seemed destined to become a footnote in Steelers secondary history.

2010- ’11 – Moving to the Slot Rejuvenates William Gay’s Steelers Career

Bryant McFadden’s return to Pittsburgh seemed to spell doom for Gay as it forced him into the role of slot corner. Instead the move probably rejuvenated his career. During the 2010 season, Gay led the Steelers in passes defensed and also recorded two sacks.

Going into 2011 Bryant McFadden remained the starter nod, but injuries led to Gay starting most of the season, where he defensed another 13 passes, and recorded two interceptions, including a game-clincher against Cincinnati in November.

However, with Cortez Allen on the rise (or so we thought) and Keenan Lewis showing signs of development, the Steelers opted to let Gay sign with Pittsburgh West and, once again, William Gay’s Steelers career seemed to have come to and end.

2013-’17 – “Big Play Willie Gay” Shines in His Second Steelers Act

…And like Bryant McFadden before him, William Gay’s stay with the Cardinals would only last one season. The Cardinals cut him, and the Steelers wasted little time in resigning him. Second acts with the Steelers have become a stable of the Colbert-Tomlin era, as Larry Foote, Antwaan Randle El, Byron Leftwich, Will Allen and Matt Spaeth all departed Pittsburgh as free agents only to return.

  • But Big Play Willie Gay probably had the brightest second act of any Steeler.

When the Steelers resigned William Gay in March of 2013, it was rightly interpreted as a Moneyball type move made in an effort to sort of secure a compensation prize for franchise too salary cap strapped to resign Keenan Lewis.

That may have been the case, but it was Moneyball at its best. The Steelers brought William Gay into man the slot, but Ike Taylor’s decline and Cortez Allen’s implosion led to Gay starting 52 games between 2013 and 2017.

A dispassionate analysis of William Gay’s contributions during this time would likely credit him with providing stability to a secondary staffed by plugins and accidental starters (see Antwon Blake and Brice McCain). But it was his penchant for explosive plays that earned him the love of Steelers Nation:

William Gay also had another interception returned for a touchdown negated by a penality in the Steelers 2016 win over the Bills. While he didn’t add any more pick sixes, Gay did intercept a pass against the Colts on Thanksgiving and again in 2017 in the Steelers home win against the Bengals.

As it happens to all great athletes, Father Time began gaining in the footrace with William Gay in 2016, as Artie Burns displaced him as the starter by the middle of the season, and rookie Mike Hilton took over the slot role in 2017.

There’d been talk of moving Gay to safety, and while Gay did play in a little bit of a hybrid safety-linebacker in 2017, the role never really emerged.

William Gay’s Place Among Steelers Corners + Thank You

When history ranks great Pittsburgh Steelers cornerbacks Hall of Famers Mel Blount, Rod Woodson and Jack Butler will come first followed by Ike Taylor and then probably Dwayne Woodruff. That gives Steelers Nation an undisputed top 5.

  • Should the work William Gay put on tape for the Steelers earn him a spot some where in the top 10?

Steel Curtain Rising will leave that for others to debate and decide. But there’s no disputing the fact that from 2013 until 2017 William Gay was most consistent contributor to the Steelers secondary.

He was also class act in the lockeroom and pillar of the community, and someone Steelers Nation should be proud to have had as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Thank you on behalf Steelers Nation and Good luck and God Speed Big Play Willie Gay!

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2018 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2018 free agency focus articles.

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Perhaps the Pittsburgh Steelers Simply Aren’t Suited for Splash Free Agency Signings

Are the Steelers suited for splash free agency? That question came to mind when news broke late Friday that the Steelers were indeed planning to cut Mike Mitchell for salary cap reasons.

  • The impending decision to cut Mike Mitchell, paired with the Ladarius Green experiment along with an article by Simon Chester reminded me of a poem I once read.

Yes, a poem penned by Jimmy Carter (yes, that “Jimmy Carter,” but fear not, politics remains a verboten topic on this site) and told of how, when his father first succeeded in the peanut business, he mail ordered an expensive suit only to have it fit badly when it arrived. He titled the poem “Prosperity Doesn’t Suit Everyone.”

Might the same lesson apply to the Steelers and free agency, at least under Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s watch?

  • Well, it certainly feels that way now.
Mike Mitchell, Jordan Howard, Steelers vs Bears

Mike Mitchell fails to stop Jordan Howard’s touchdown. Photo Credit: Charles Palla, via Twitter

The Pittsburgh Steelers have never been big players in free agency. In the 1990’s fans would howl over the Steelers decision to devote their salary cap dollars to resigning stars like Rod Woodson, Dermontti Dawson and Greg Lloyd, while opting to let other teams over pay players like Yancey Thigpen and John Jackson.

The opening of Heinz Field in 2001 gave the Steelers the resources to keep more of their own players. And victories Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII validate the Steelers approach.

Yet One for the Thumb and the Lombardi Six Pack haven’t stopped fans from lamenting the fact that Dan Rooney’s team doesn’t act more like Daniel Snyder’s team the off season Lombardi race.

  • Yet, the Steelers started free agency with a bang during two of the last four off seasons.

In 2014 it meant signing Mike Mitchell to replace Ryan Clark, and in 2016 it meant signing Ladarius Green to replace Heath Miller. Both were day one, big money deals which were decidedly out of character for the franchise.

Sure, the Steelers opened free agency in 2010 by signing Antwaan Randle El, Larry Foote, Will Allen, Jonathan Scott and Arnz Battle. But those modest contracts were completely consistent with Pittsburgh’s free agency philosophy even if the timing wasn’t.

The Difference with the Mitchell and Green Signings

The signings of Mike Mitchell and Ladarius Green were different. While they certainly weren’t Albert Haynesworth break-the bank blowup the salary cap type contracts, they also weren’t the type of bargain hunting/best-bang for the buck type free agent the Steeler are known for.

  • And both Mike Mitchell and Ladarius Green were disappointments.

In his six games with the Steelers Ladarius Green delivered the “field flipping” capability that Mike Tomlin brought him to Pittsburgh to provide. But the Steelers signed him to a 4 year contract, so they were expecting another 58 games or so. Ladarius Green remains out of football either because his ankle never healed correctly, because of concussions or because of both.

  • Mike Mitchell is a little different.

Mike Mitchell earned the wrath of Steelers Nation during 2014, even though he was playing with an groin injury throughout the season. He also failed to jell with Troy Polamalu, which is why the Steelers defense closed 2014 on a high note with Will Allen starting alongside Mitchell.

In 2015 Mike Mitchell made a number of plays, including a few drive killing interceptions in the Red Zone. Mitchell didn’t make as many “Splash” plays in 2016, but his tackle and pass defensed numbers were on par with 2017.

  • Consensus by analysts both inside and outside Pittsburgh concludes that 2017 was a disaster for Mike Mitchell. He defensed a total of two passes, and his tackle count was down by more than a third.

Mitchell might unfairly get scapegoated by fans for more things than are actually his fault, but clearly he hasn’t delivered as the Steelers expected, or needed.

What Do the Mitchell and Green Disappointments Tell Us?

A few weeks ago on Simon Chester, the best writer on staff at The Steelers Wire, opined that “Steelers history with free agency far from inspiring.” It certainly feels that way now, given how badly the Ladarius Green experiment failed and how uneven Mike Mitchell’s tenure in Pittsburgh was.

Yet Chester’s analysis literally began with Greg Clark, one of the first free agents the Steelers signed and one who never saw the final roster and wasn’t overly colored by recent events.

  • Nonetheless, to declare the Steelers history with free agency as uninspiring is an over reaction.

The Steelers have acquired the services of future Hall of Famer Kevin Greene and perennial Pro Bowlers James Farrior, Jeff Hartings and Ryan Clark through free agency. They’ve also found quality starters like fullback John Williams, defensive end Ray Seals and offensive lineman like Will Wolford and Tom Newberry. And they’ve excelled at finding backups who deliver like starters when called upon, with Arthur Moats and Mewelde Moore providing recent examples.

  • But there’s a common thread to all of these free agent moves.

Almost none of them were considered “splash free agency signings.” The Steelers only signed Kevin Greene after the Chargers offered an inane one year restricted free agent tender to Jerrol Williams. The Steelers only signed James Farrior after getting wind that Earl Holmes was shopping Pittsburgh’s offer to the Browns.

In the spring of 1994, Steelers Nation was clamoring for Pittsburgh to poach Daryl Johnson and Alvin Harper  from the Cowboys — John L. Williams and Ray Seals were consultation prizes. When the Steelers drafted Anthony Smith in the 2nd round of the 2006 NFL Draft, they planned for him and not Ryan Clark, the free agent they’d signed earlier, to be the long term starter at safety.

  • Its not that the Steelers can’t hit home runs in free agency — the can and they have — but it almost seems like they’re more likely to hit them without trying.

Maybe its just coincidence, but its hard not to think of this and remember the lesson that Art Rooney Sr. tried to teach his kids when he admonished them to drive a Buick instead of a Cadillac  “Never put on the dog.”

Perhaps its a lesson his grandson would do well to remember as the Steelers approach free agency this spring.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2018 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2018 free agency focus articles.

 

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This Time There’s No Suspense over Sean Spence’s Impending Free Agency with Steelers

25 years ago the arrival of free agency breathed life into the once staid NFL off season by introducing an element of the unknown. Once, after the games ended, news on the NFL would dry up, except for the draft.

  • Now February is filled with speculation over what will happen, while free agent moves dominate the news in March.

Sean Spence has been around long enough that this is his second go-around as a Steelers free agent. Two seasons ago there was legitimate speculation about his fate and future with the team. Today there’s little suspense behind Sean Spence’s free agency. Let’s look at why.

Sean Spence, Steelers vs Texans, Steelers win Texans Christmas

Sean Spence in Steelers Christmas win over Texans. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Sean Spence’s Steelers Career

The Steelers picked Sean Spence in the 3rd round of the 2012 NFL Draft hoping to replace James Farrior and/or Larry Foote. Early returns indicated Spence was that player until devastating knee injury threatened to end Sean Spence’s NFL career before it began.

The Steelers kept him on IR for two seasons, but drafted Vince Williams and Ryan Shazier to hedge their bets.
By the time Steelers OTAs in the spring of 2014, both Vince Williams and Ryan Shazier had passed him on the depth chart, but Sean Spence was back to full health, and looking good.

Sean Spence earned a roster spot, and entered the season as “The next man up” at inside linebacker. Injuries quickly paved the way for Spence’s to get playing time, and he 8 games where he:

Spence didn’t have quite as many “Splash Plays” in 2015, but he continued to rotate with Williams in relief of Shazier, and started four games during the course of the season. Spence’s strong resume led to speculation that the Steelers might resign him with an eye toward replacing Lawrence Timmons.

  • That never happened.

Sean Spence looked like a “Starter Capable” player and he followed Dick LeBeau to the Tennessee Titans. Despite some solid numbers in 2016, Spence didn’t get an offer after playing on his one year deal. The Colts signed him, but cut him before training camp, brought him back for a few games, but Spence was on the couch out of football when Ryan Shazier suffered a spinal contusion against the Bengals.

The Steelers resigned Spence and he started immediately, looking ever bit like a player coming off the couch in the Steelers games against the Ravens and Patriots. He played better against the Texans and Browns, but was part of an atrocious defensive effort in the playoff loss to the Jaguars.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Sean Spence

Sean Spence knows the system, having come up under Dick LeBeau and playing for Keith Butler. Perhaps Sean Spence isn’t a long-term answer or a long term starter for the Steelers at inside linebacker, but his experience suits him to serve as a bridge starter and mentor to the inside linebacker the Steelers will likely chose early in the 2018 NFL Draft.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Sean Spence

The Steelers lost Ryan Shazier and Tyler Matakevich in a matter of minutes, and it was clear through the rest of the game that L.J. Fort and Arthur Moats weren’t up to replacing him in the middle caused Kevin Colbert to look to Sean Spence.

  • But Steelers defense was flatfooted without Shazier, and Spence did little to change that.

Sure, he improved during the regular season, but he really didn’t give much of an indication that he was even a short-term answer. The Steelers need to improve at inside linebacker, and its hard to make the case that Sean Spence’s return helps make that happen.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Sean Spence

Gene Collier of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote about how twin injuries have forever linked the fates of Sean Spence and Ryan Shazier. It was an inspiring story.

  • But inspiration isn’t what the Steelers need at inside linebacker, what they need is a dynamic playmaker.

Word is that Lawrence Timmons will be on the free agent market, and speculation is that the Steelers would bring him back. Its entirely possible that Timmons would do more for this unit than Spence, which should tell you what you need to know.

After the dust of both free agency and the draft settles, Sean Spence may be worth a considering bringing back at a veteran minimum contract, but anything beyond that would be a surprise.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2018 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2018 free agency focus articles.

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Coty Sensabaugh’s First Start Can Validate the Steelers Free Agency Strategy

If you’re a long-time (or even short-time) Steelers fan, you no doubt are well-aware of their tradition of not making huge splash signings during the heart of the free agency frenzy every March.

While the acquisition of highly-accomplished cornerback Joe Haden may have been a departure from how Pittsburgh had conducted its business in the past, that signing was a little fluky, as it occurred just before the start of the season, and was only made possible after Haden was released by the Browns.

  • The unusual Haden signing, aside, it was business as usual for the Steelers last spring, as they set out to underwhelm their fans by not “winning” in free agency.

The outside free agents Pittsburgh inked last spring included receiver Justin Hunter, defensive lineman Tyson Alualu, running back/return specialist Knile Davis and journeyman cornerback Coty Sensabaugh

  • Instead of difference-makers, these players were brought in as a means to fortify the roster and add quality depth.

But who cares about depth during free agency, right? As a fan, you want the adrenaline rush of that buzz-worthy deal that becomes the headline story on Sportscenter.

Coty Sensabaugh, Coty Sensabaughs first start, Marion Mack, Steelers vs Colts, Steelers vs Titans,

Marion Mack tries to leap over Coty Sensabaugh in Steelers win over Colts. Photo Credit: AP, Sharon Herald

You want Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith (no matter how much you might loathe both) loudly proclaiming that your team will be next February’s Super Bowl champion based on what it just did this March.

Again, while other teams made moves that captured the headlines and drew bold proclamations from the national talking heads, the Steelers had their own, quiet little vision in-mind.

  • Here we are, nine games into the 2017 season, and Tyson Alualu, for example, has already made a huge impact on the team.

Tyson Alualu has not only been a regular part of the Steelers defensive line rotation, and a noticeable upgrade over the likes of former reserves, Cam Thomas and Ricardo Mathews, he’s had to start four games so far due to multiple injuries suffered by budding star Stephon Tuitt.

  • In-fact, Tyson Alualu was launched to the top of the depth chart almost immediately, when Tuitt tore his biceps just two plays into Pittsburgh’s Week 1 match-up against the Browns.

While Alualu hasn’t posted impressive numbers in the eight games he’s played in 2017 (14 tackles and two sacks), he’s been far from a weak-link–and he did sack Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford on a critical fourth and goal play late in the Steelers exciting 20-15 victory in Week 8.

  • This brings us to Coty Sensabaugh, and the immediate future of the Steelers secondary, now that Joe Haden will be out indefinitely with a fractured fibula he sustained in Sunday’s 20-17 victory over the Colts.

People may forget that, before the unusual splash-worthy signing of Joe Haden last summer, Coty Sensabaugh was not only being considered for the slot corner role, he had acquitted himself well-enough that he was challenging former corner, Ross Cockrell, for the top spot, opposite Artie Burns, late in the preseason.

Of course, the Haden acquisition changed everything–including Cockrell’s spot on the roster. And with youngster Mike Hilton exploding on the scene this past summer and clamping down that slot corner spot, Sensabaugh quickly became a forgotten man in the Steelers defensive backfield.

Until now.

There is no discounting the impact Joe Haden has made on the Steelers secondary in 2017; a two-time Pro Bowl player and a veteran, Haden has been the glue to a young unit that has gone from the bottom of the league in passing yards two years ago, to near the top in 2017.

  • No matter how you slice it, or how you may try to rationalize it away, Joe Haden will be greatly missed.

The “next man up” mantra head coach Mike Tomlin likes to preach every time a top player gets injured is headline-worthy, and it perhaps galvanizes his troops in troubled times.

  • But starters are starters for a reason, and backup are backups.
  • But that doesn’t mean Sensabaugh can’t come in and provide adequate depth.

A six-year veteran, Coty Sensabaugh, 29, was on three different rosters the previous two seasons–including two in 2016–before winding up with Pittsburgh.

Coty Sensabaugh is a journeyman, no question, but his career resume (29 career starts–including 15 two years ago as a member of the Titans) suggests that he can step in and be an asset for the Steelers over the next few weeks. Who knows? Maybe Coty Sensabaugh can be the same type of free agent acquisition at cornerback as Will Allen was at safety.

If you’ll remember, Will Allen was “the other guy” the Steelers signed in their Get the Band Back Together” free agency spree in March 2010, when they welcomed Larry Foote and Antwaan Randle El. Allen didn’t do much until 2012, but he provided stability at safety from 2012 onwards, (not that anyone would confuse him with Troy Polamalu).

In the same light, Coty Sensabaugh doesn’t have to be Joe Haden. He just has to get Pittsburgh through the next several games without the defense suffering major blows because of his presence on the field.

Depth players prove their true worth, not when they come in and spell a starter during the course of a game, but when they have to take a starter’s place over the course of a few weeks.

If Coty Sensabaugh can do that in Joe Haden’s absence and not become a liability in the secondary, the Steelers will truly be free agent “winners” in 2017.

 

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