Talent vs. Effort vs. Tyler vs. Tomlin

[Photo via Steelers.com]

One of the things which has been said about the 2017 Steelers, at least since the draft was over, is that the depth at inside linebacker is dangerously thin. Ryan Shazier has certainly missed some time in the past, and he missed Games 4-6 last season. (He missed seven games in 2014 and four in 2015, so I guess you could say the arrow is pointed up.) Williams has been remarkably durable. The only season he didn’t play 16 games was his rookie year (2013) and that was the first game of the season, so I’m guessing he just didn’t “get a hat.”

As they say in the financial industry, previous performance is no guarantee of future results. But one thing to consider is just how often both Shazier and Williams will be on the field, because the Steelers have been using sub-packages an awful lot of the time. And Williams won’t be on the field anyhow on third and long. But somebody has to be, and, more to the point, there has to be a backup plan, and a backup to the backup plan.

So naturally one looks to see who is behind Shazier and Williams on the depth chart, and that’s where people get nervous. I wrote about this some weeks ago, profiling the various backups. But at least Mark Kaboly, who writes about the Steelers for DK on Pittsburgh Sports and who worked the Steelers beat for some years before that at, was not impressed by any of the backups, because when asked at one of his weekly Q and A sessions who would take the place of either Williams or Shazier if one of them got hurt, and his answer was short and to the point—”Someone not currently on the roster.”

Some weeks later I asked him (in another Q and A) why Tomlin seemed to like Tyler Matakevich so much better than he does. Kaboly replied something to the effect that he didn’t have anything against Matakevich, but his role was a special teams guy who could take the occasional snap if necessary.

I found myself wondering what Kaboly would have said about James Harrison in his early years with the Steelers, and what he would have considered his upside to be. To harp, I suppose, upon the theme Ivan has written so passionately about, the only people who really know what’s going on in the coach’s heads are the coaches. And I’m guessing they share that very sparingly with the media, and quite possibly only when they want to deliver some sort of message, which may or may not contain a certain amount of misdirection.

I got to thinking about it once again after reading the following in Jim Wexell’s Training Camp Diary, which he writes for Scout.com. I’ve trimmed the excerpt a bit:

Vince Williams is said to be a very smart linebacker, one who’ll likely coach the game some day. But don’t expect him to get the “green dot” that signifies his helmet is the one which carries the radio signal from the sidelines…as the primary defensive communicator…The coaching staff doesn’t care which of the two positions [buck or mack] takes on the duties, but Shazier, the playmaking mack, will retain the job because he’ll always be on the field…

But that brings up the question of who will replace Williams, then. Tyler Matakevich is the backup at both linebacker positions, but he’s not better in coverage than Williams…

After Wexell goes through the other possibilities (basically Daimion Stafford, who still hasn’t reported as of Monday evening as he contemplates retirement, and Sean Davis, who Wexell isn’t sure is ready for that yet), and then made this statement:

While Matakevich looked bad at times in pass coverage in the spring, I learned that he was being intentionally isolated in difficult matchups without any safety help. The guess is that this was done to inspire the second-year Temple ILB through the six weeks between mini and maxi camp.

Hmm. This is one of those little nuggets that one has to glean out of the tremendous amount of dross being written about camp right about now. Maybe it doesn’t mean anything, although Wexell is a very good source. But maybe it does.

And, of course, just because it means something (such as the staff is trying to spur Matakevich to greater heights of accomplishment—and I deliberately put it that way because nobody needs to spur Matakevich to greater effort, by all accounts) doesn’t mean that he has the “upside,” as it might be characterized, to improve sufficiently. After all, no one ever accused him of being fast. Matakevich had his tremendous college production by virtue of outworking everyone else, making sure he knew so much that he saved the tiny momentary hesitation which would allow his faster opponent the advantage. After all, football is a game of inches, and of tiny fractions of a second. The question is, is this enough in the NFL?

This little nugget of information seems to indicate that the coaches think it might be. Which takes us back to the old talent vs. effort argument, and the real question—one which can perhaps never be satisfactorily answered—is where the line is in some sort of minimum necessary talent level. What was it they used to say about Hines Ward? Something to the effect that he was the slowest wide receiver in the league who was always open. And Hines parleyed that into a pretty nice career.

Does this mean that Tyler Matakevich can parley his particular skill set, in combination with the work he puts in to minimize his disadvantages, into something more than a special teams maven in time? Is it at least adequate to back up the ILB position for this season, whether he ever ends up starting a single game in his career? These are the questions which make training camp so fascinating. It’s no great surprise to hear, as Wexell reported, that nobody loves training camp like Mike Tomlin.

I’m sure that in some ways the excitement isn’t all that dissimilar to those of us who go and watch from the bleachers. Because what we are all waiting to see is that extraordinary moment—the spectacular leaping grab of a hitherto unheralded wide receiver, or a diminutive running back getting the best of a defensive lineman who seems practically twice his size. It’s almost like Christmas—the thrill is the greatest before you actually find out what’s in the package. That beautifully wrapped box could be just another tie, (and almost certainly is, in fact,) but it could also be a Rolex. And among the mass of humanity before him, Tomlin is watching for that spark.

I’m hoping to be there tomorrow, and naturally I’ll report in full, or as fully as you can report on what Ivan once called a three-ring circus. I’ll make my share of reports on those spectacular grabs from guys who will shortly disappear back into obscurity. But in the meantime, we can all enjoy the pure anticipation of opening our shiny presents to see what’s actually in them. And Tyler, I’ll be looking for you…

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