Training Camp Battles: Inside Linebackers

Keith Srakocic/AP Photo

Note: the Steelers do not distinguish between inside and outside linebackers on their roster, and I’ve made a few assumptions which may or may not be correct, or current. Hopefully I’ve gotten it right…

The good news is that the Steelers, despite losing Sean Spence and Terence Garvin to free agency, are currently overloaded at the position. This is, of course, the bad news for some guys looking to make the team.

The starters are Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier. The good news there is that Shazier is having a terrific camp. The very capable and experience backup is Vince Willians. Steven Johnson is a veteran signing, competing with several young guys for the other backup spot. The linked article has a full profile for Johnson, and his mindset is not just to make the roster as a backup but to compete for a starting position. That’s quite a long shot, but in a business where players are frequently injured, anything can happen.

The above-mentioned young guys are making sure that it won’t be a gimme for anyone to clinch that other ILB slot, as several of them have made a compelling case for themselves.

Perhaps the one with the inside track is L.J. Fort, who was activated late last season and played some special teams snaps in the final playoff game @ Denver. That’s a big advantage right there, because with all of the others, how they perform in an NFL game situation is entirely speculation at this point. Fort is actually a good bit older than the others—at 26, he’s only two years younger than Johnson. But he has three less years of NFL experience, although he’s spent a lot of time on other teams.

The Browns signed him first as a UDFA. He had a decent rookie season with the Browns, playing in all 16 games after an injury to the starter. In 2014 he went to Seattle, where they used him in their practice squad as a fullback. He also has been signed for the Denver and New England training camps (2014 and 2015.) The Steelers signed him the day after the Patriots cut him and put him on the practice squad. So he certainly has a diverse resumé.

The next oldest guy still hasn’t played a down with the Steelers, through no fault of his own. I have a soft spot for Jordan Zumwalt, as he was one of my BLA picks for my 2014 mock draft. Unfortunately he had a hip injury that year which finally sent him to IR after only playing in one preseason game. Last season he only made it partway through training camp before the Steelers decided he needed surgery. He had a grueling almost six hour procedure to fix the hip problem, and has spent a long off-season rehabbing. He’s happy to be out on the field, but there is a long road in front of him, and the chances of his making the roster are not looking particularly promising, mainly because, at least so far, others are making a better case for themselves. I haven’t heard anything bad about him—I just haven’t heard anything at all, and that’s not encouraging.

In the meantime “Dirty Red,” aka Tyler Matakevich, brought down the house at the Friday night lights practice. Although it was admittedly in a situation favoring the defense, not a single guy in the backs on backers was able to block him. He was seven for seven. It’s a really good start for an end-of-the-draft guy. There’s a lot more about him in the linked profile. A lot more. There was a lot to say about this young man, and given the noise he’s making at camp so far, it might be worth a second reading. (In case you’re wondering, “Dirty Red” is Tomlin’s nickname for Matakevich. Whatever it means, it has to be preferable to Tomlin’s nickname for Zumwalt, which is “Money Pit.”)

All I can say is, I’m glad I’m not the one making these decisions. They have to be incredibly tough. That said, it must be far preferable for the coaches than the situation at defensive tackle, where, at least so far, none of the backups are distinguishing themselves.

to be continued




  • cold_old_steelers_fan

    The big question will be how many LBs the Steelers keep on the 53. I am thinking 4 inside and 4 outside as a minimum with the possibility of a 9th LB making the team basis his ST skills.

    My best guess, at this point in time is Timmons, Shazier, and Williams as locks on the inside with Johnson pretty close to being a lock as well. That would mean one player, competing with the guys on the outside, for a ST role and maybe one more on the PS.

    Matakevich seems the most likely candidate for PS which leave Fort and Zumwalt fighting for a ST spot with the OLB group.

    This is all idle speculation on my part and one injury to anyone in this group could change everything.

    I don’t know what the contract status is with the guys in this group, other than Timmons who (iirc) is an UFA at the end of this season. I will not be surprised to not see Timmons back next season if only because the Steelers will not be able to pay everyone.


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