Keys to the Super Bowl: Inside Linebackers



Mark Kaboly, is a local sportswriter covering the Steelers who has now moved from the Trib to DK on Pittsburgh Sports, a pay-only site run by former Trib and Post-Gazette writer Dejan Kovacevic. Kaboly does a series of Q and As, and in the last one got the following question:

When Shazier or Williams get hurt, who do you see as the number 3 inside linebacker?

His answer:

Somebody who is not on the roster. And way to be positive there, but I get your point. That’s been the biggest fail by the Steelers in this offseason — depth at ILB.

So is this really a problem, or is there a guy the Steelers are expecting to take a big leap? Williams has seemed pretty durable, but I checked, in case my memory was bad, and since 2013 he has missed one game, an early October game in 2013. So there is reason to be confident about his availability.

Shazier is another story. His rookie season (2014) he only played in nine games during the regular season, missing almost the entire month of October and then, after two weeks back, the rest of November. However, it has gotten better, as he managed to play 12 games in 2015 and 13 in 2016. In addition, he played in all the playoff games in all three seasons, so there’s that.

And this is not a big surprise. His rather Polamalu-like style of play, combined with his relatively slight physique, makes him a candidate for problems early and often.

I left the previous statement about his “relatively slight physique” because this just goes to show how one’s assumptions can get in the way of the truth. I looked up the figures and Shazier is 6’1″, 230 pounds. I then looked up Vince Williams, who is 6’1″, 233 pounds. Probably those three pounds aren’t the difference between their durability. Not that I necessarily believe the official figures. It’s a bit like Ben still being listed at 241 after all these years. He possibly starts training camp at 241, but I’m quite sure it doesn’t stay there…

At any rate, who is the depth behind Williams and Shazier? Realistically speaking, it is L.J. Fort, Steven Johnson, and Tyler Matakevich. The links on the latter two’s names will take you to the articles I wrote about them last year. I obviously need to get up to speed with an article about Fort!

Looking at the current 90-man roster, there are two other long shots—UDFA signing Keith Kelsey, (Louisville,) and Pitt middle linebacker Matt Galambos. Galambos was a rookie minicamp invitee who actually was one of the few to be signed afterwards. I would presume that the chances of either making the team are pretty much predicated on their special teams play, and it is probably more realistic to assume that they are practice squad guys at best.

So why did the Steelers stubbornly refuse to address the depth at ILB, as Kaboly would presumably have it? After all, the injury rate in the NFL is 100%, and it’s reasonable to assume that one or both of the starters will miss some time.

There are several possibilities. The first is that they are in fact happy with who they have—that they saw something in one or more of the depth guys which makes them feel comfortable about the possibility of said guy(s) starting. The second is that they have a plan in place to address the need via some sort of free agency/trade scenario if they determine the need is there after training camp. The third is that they are either completely out of salary cap (not the case at the moment) and/or completely incompetent.

Let’s take those in reverse order. I think it is reasonable to assume that the Steelers’ front office is not completely incompetent, although we as fans might not agree with all of their decisions. (Long snapper in the sixth round, anyone?)

And my parenthetical remark tells us a lot. I’m quite sure I wasn’t the only person in Pittsburgh to exclaim over the choice of a long snapper in the sixth round. In fact, I know this to be the case, as Post-Gazette writer Gerry Dulac sent out a tweet expressing his scorn for the pick.

Well, Greg Warren failed his physical, Kevin Colbert had a good explanation for the pick, and it all goes to show that even a long-time beat reporter with team access can say some pretty dumb stuff.

As for the “completely out of salary cap” part of the speculation, I think it’s more likely that, given that they are still negotiating a couple of large contracts, they aren’t exactly sure where they will stand by the beginning of the season, cap-wise. And this of course affects Speculation No. 2, the idea of picking up someone in free agency, which Mark Kaboly thinks they will do.

But I’m going to vote for option 1, at least until proven wrong by subsequent events. I’m guessing they saw enough from one or more of the depth guys to feel that they could manage if need be. Especially if the missing linebacker is Shazier, there is going to be a drop in quality. But isn’t that almost always the case when a starter goes down? After all, they are the starter in the first place because they are some combination of more experienced, more talented, smarter, more athletic, or whatever. They might not be the best two years from now, but right now they are the best. If they aren’t, they will be supplanted.

We saw this in action last season with the safety position. Robert Golden began the season as the starter, and was supplanted by Sean Davis when Davis gained sufficient experience and so on to surpass him.

There’s no reason to think that any one of the trio of Fort, Matakevich, and Johnson will surpass either of the starters. But I believe there is a reasonable chance that one of them is poised to step up and grab the primary backup job, by demonstrating they can see at least limited action without an enormous drop in quality.

Would the Steelers be better off with, say, Luke Kuechley lining up next to Shazier? I think that question answers itself. The question for this series is, does the lack of another high-impact player like Kuechley seriously impare the defense? Honestly, I would say no. The truth is, you can’t have a stud at every position, and even more so you can’t have a stud sitting on the bench waiting for someone to get hurt at every position either.

I may, of course, be proven quite wrong. It’s certainly true that Kaboly has a much better chance than I do of correctly judging the situation. But until the Steelers either sign someone else in free agency or lose a couple of games because of poor inside linebacker play, I’m going to stick to my guns…



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