Pittsburgh’s Goin’ to the Super Bowl: The Inside Scoop

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A.P. Photo

The final position I’m going to cover in this series is the inside linebackers. In theory I ought to address the tight ends and the kicking team, but the former was at least touched upon in the receivers post and the latter lacks drama at the moment, thank heavens.

One of the biggest questions this off-season, which has now been answered, was what was going to happen with the Lawrence Timmons situation. It’s interesting that I find myself thinking that Timmons to the Dolphins was probably a good outcome for everyone. He gets more money than the Steelers were willing to give him, the Steelers have Vince Williams, who has played reasonably well (or better) when called upon, and there is still the possibility of picking up a young guy to complement Ryan Shazier, who is rapidly becoming a star in the interior.

I’ve pretty much covered the first part of these posts already—where the position is currently at. The presumed starters at inside linebacker for next season are Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams, and there is no reason to think anything else will be the case, assuming both Williams and Shazier are healthy, at least to start the season.

But given Shazier’s checkered injury history in particular, the question of who is behind him is more than ordinarily interesting. So let’s have a look at the roster thus far.

This is a fun position group to look at, because there are several of my favorites on the roster. Tyler Matakevich is a guy I wrote a lot about after he was drafted, because he is totally a Steelers sort of guy.  Here’s a quote from an SI.com article about him, written before the draft:

He is an unusual fit for an NFL linebacker, built more like a fullback (6′ 0″, 238 lbs.) and without any standout athletic traits; his 4.81-second 40, 31-inch vertical and 7.19-second three cone are all middle-of-the-road combine marks among his position group.

He is quick to point out that he produced in college despite his physical limitations. And he credits his time spent working off the field for that success.

“There’s nothing I can do about my size. It’s the film. I think I put enough [on] film for the past four years for them to see that my size doesn’t matter,” Matakevich said.

“I understand I’m not the biggest, the strongest, the fastest, but I’ll beat you in the film room. … I think that’s what makes me such a special player and that’s what is going to allow me to get to the next level.”

Another guy, not one the Steelers drafted but one they signed as a free agent last year became another favorite. Steven Johnson was IR’d after an injury sidelined him for several weeks, but the Steelers obviously thought enough of him to give him another contract this spring. I also wrote about him after the signing last year:

Perhaps a more appropriate title for this post would have been “A Football Life in the Slow Lane.” Nothing has been easy for Pennsylvania native Steven Johnson, except perhaps his decision to sign a one-year contract with the Steelers in March.

Johnson has played football for essentially his whole life. He was never the strongest or the fastest or the most obviously gifted player. But all he wanted was an opportunity. And opportunities have seemingly been few and far between.

I suppose that’s a common thread between undrafted and barely-drafted guys—generally they aren’t obviously physically gifted, but they have the persistence and drive to keep plugging away despite minimal encouragement. Frequently the gristmill that is the NFL chews them up, spits them out, and moves on to the next young hopeful face, but a few manage to continue to get signed for yet another chance at glory. It’s hard not to root for guys like that, especially when they are obviously good people.

In the NFL (as, I suppose, in life) one man’s misfortune is often another man’s opportunity, and L.J. Fort was one of those. He was released by the Steelers last November and re-signed four days later when they put Johnson on IR. He was originally signed as a UDFA by the Browns In 2012, and since escaping Cleveland the following year has bounced around a good bit. However, he has never, ever again been on a non-contender—he’s had a cup of coffee or more with the Broncos, Bengals, Seahawks, Patriots, and now the Steelers.

There are a few new names on the linebackers’ portion of the roster as well. Most of them are OLBs, which I covered a few weeks ago. The only new name in the ILBs is one I’m really excited about. He made the final cut of Momma’s Mock Draft last year, but went undrafted and was picked up elsewhere. They cut him, and now he is where he belongs, in the Black and Gold. I speak, of course, of Akil Blount.

I wrote quite extensively about him last year, and here is a heavily edited version of that:

Okay, so he’s Mel Blount’s son. What has he done for anyone lately?

A great deal, as it turns out. He’s quite an impressive young man who isn’t interesting in using his famous father’s name to, well, make a name for himself. He wants who he is and what he can do on the field to speak for him.

One of the things which impressed me was his desire to emulate his father in starting a charity to help young men to better themselves, and he began the process in college:

A handful of [Florida A & M] Rattlers [— including two coaches — traveled to the new Kearney Center on Municipal Way to deliver clothes the organization could give to Goodwill in exchange for clothing vouchers. Those vouchers will allow men and women the shelter takes in to shop for outfits, said co-director of services at the center Monique Ellsworth. In all, the Rattlers were able to fill two storage bins with donated clothes. The shelter should get 20 to 30 vouchers for those clothes.

The clothing drive was organized by senior linebacker Akil Blount, who is also president of the Student Athlete Advisory Committee, an organization of FAMU athletes that has been around since 2011. “God had laid this on my heart to bring this to the leadership committee,” Blount said. “We talked about it and spread the message throughout the team. The team responded well to it. I feel God has blessed us and placed us on a platform as athletes. We have to use that platform to positively impact the community.”

Blount said he plans to continue the team’s charity efforts into the season. Eventually he’s planning on taking Rattlers from all sports into different elementary schools to work with kids, and he’s already organizing a Trunk or Treat — where kids can trick or treat from the safety of a parking lot. “Hopefully we can be an inspiration to other people,” Blount said. “With everything that’s going on with things like violence and police brutality, just so much negative stuff, we’re just trying to be examples of some good things happening in the community.”

In an interview last year he gave the following answer, which I found very interesting.

Q: If I were a GM and gave you a second to sell yourself, what would you say?

A: I am a passionate football player who loves the game, works hard, has pride in doing the right thing, and positively affects teammates, most importantly a play maker.

It sounds like a very solid group of young men in the ILB room. Let’s hope they all become solid playmakers as well.

As for the draft, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see them pick up someone to push Vince Williams for the job. And while there is a decent amount of experience behind the starters, it seems at the moment that they are mostly “depth” guys. Of course, one of them could surprise us all.

As for their BLA credentials, the depth guys have a lot to offer. Steven Johnson, Akil Blount, and L.J. Fort are all seriously in the running. I’ll update you all at training camp as to who is carrying away the honors…

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