If you tuned into the Steelers’ Week 5, 41-17 win against the Atlanta Falcons this past Sunday at Heinz Field, you may have been anticipating the defensive debut of an athletic and mostly-unproven player at inside linebacker.
- After all, reports that this young lion had been getting reps with the first team tantalized during the preceding week.
Only that athletic inside linebacker wasn’t Matthew Thomas, the Steelers 2018 undrafted free agent out of Florida State, who dazzled in the preseason and had many clamoring for him to get an increase in playing-time thanks to the struggles of the Steelers’ defense through the first four weeks.
Instead, what the fans got was more playing time for L.J. Fort, the 2012 undrafted rookie free agent of Northern Iowa, who bounced around the NFL for a few years before winding up with the Steelers in 2015. L.J. Fort saw playing-time on defense sparingly over his first three seasons with Pittsburgh, but he did have a knack for dazzling a bit in preseason action.
Witnessing L. J. Fort in action in recent years (as limited as that action may have been), you could see that he possessed athleticism superior to the likes of Vince Williams and Tyler Matakevich. In-fact, L.J. Fort appeared to come about as close as humanly possible to having the abilities of a Ryan Shazier, whose athletic gifts seemed to be super-natural for an inside linebacker.
Yet, when Ryan Shazier suffered his gruesome and life-altering spinal contusion injury against the Bengals last December at Cincinnati’s Paul Brown Stadium, it was Tyler Matakevich who stepped in at inside linebacker, albeit only briefly, before he suffered a pretty serious shoulder injury on the same night.
- Ah, but with Tyler Matakevick out, the Steelers turned to the unproven L.J. Fort but down-the-stretch and into the playoffs? Right?
Alas, they did not. Instead, they went out and signed Sean Spence, who was out of work and sitting on his couch, when head coach Mike Tomlin and Co. came calling.
- The results, as you know, were not great, as the Jacksonville Jaguars exposed Sean Spence and the rest of the Steelers’ defense during that ugly playoff loss January 14th.
Fast-forward to this past Sunday. The veteran Vince Williams was out of action due to a hamstring injury, and even though Tyler Matakevich started at inside linebacker alongside Jon Bostic, this meant that L. J. Fort, who had just 11 snaps on defense through the first month of the season, would see increased action, particularly on third down.
L.J. Fort’s snap count with the defense only reached 27 on Sunday, a number that was significantly less than both Jon Bostic and Tyler Matakevich, but Fort got the most bang for his buck, recording six tackles and a sack of Falcons’ quarterback Matt Ryan. L.J. Fort was also credited with three quarterback hits and played well in pass coverage.
Fort even put the finishing touches on a 41-17 win by using his quickness to pounce on a fumble in the end zone after outside linebacker T.J. Watt stripped Ryan of the football near the Steelers’ goal line.
- Does this mean Fort is the answer to the Steelers’ lack of a dazzling play-maker at the inside linebacker spot?
Not necessarily. What it could mean is that the injury to Vince Williams may have been a blessing in disguise, as it left the Steelers with almost no choice but to utilize L.J. Fort and make him a bigger part of their defensive game-plan.
The Steelers may have gotten stronger at inside linebacker this past Sunday; no, not because Matthew Thomas got a chance, but because L.J. Fort finally got his.