Do the Pittsburgh Steelers have answers at inside linebacker on the roster?
The Pittsburgh Steelers were put into an extremely tough position when Ryan Shazier went down. It was an unfortunate and unpredictable injury with some long-term implications. Wondering whether or not Ryan Shazier is going to play football again is a thought so far back into everyone’s minds, that the Steelers need to act as if he will not, and be overwhelmingly surprised if he does. That means no short-term plans, no bridges. It is time to worry about the present and future at middle linebacker.
The Steelers were caught off guard last season but also were exposed for having such little inspiration when it comes to the depth at middle linebacker. This is a team that signed Sean Spence off of the street to start in a playoff game because of the lack of depth. This team was all-in with Ryan Shazier and had no answer for life without him. So, with little time to turn incompetent depth into an entire group capable to replace a Pro Bowl caliber linebacker, how did the Steelers fare? Do they have anything in this room entering the season with potential for the future? Do they even have something to cover the hole in the present?
We all know Vince Williams. He is the story we hear from so many late round Steelers draft picks. Williams is the special teams player who earns his stripes with a start here and a start there. Entering year four, the Steelers tie him up on a team friendly deal, and they work him into the starting lineup for some of his prime careers. Williams left year four with 17 starts and started 16 games in year two, his first season as a full starter.
His combination with Ryan Shazier was strong. Williams was leading the team in sacks and Shazier was the team leader in interceptions. They had a fire and ice thing going.
The issue with Williams is that entering year six, he likely is what he is. He is a downhill thumper. He is not a prognosticator in space. He is not going to be the teams play caller and in nickel situations, it is likely the team’s preferred outcome to get him off of the field on obvious pass snaps. When his role is simple-blitzing, run stuffing, creating a presence in the box- Williams can do it. The question is, what more can they drag out of Williams without a Shazier to hold him up?
Williams is an Unrestricted Free Agent this coming offseason. If the team can get Williams on another team-friendly contract in camp this year, they would likely make that move. They should have no issue with what Vince Williams is in his current role.
However, if he is wanting a more serious role or more money, it becomes tricky. Williams will have to prove that he can handle greater duties before earning that type of contract. As of now, the team should be focusing on the idea that he is who is, and with the right compliment can be a strong role player.
Matakevich was a seventh-round pick out of Temple. A highly decorated college player, many saw Matakevich as too small for the NFL. Matakevich earned his roster spot as a rookie with stellar special teams play.
In the absence of Ryan Shazier, Matakevich was the first man up. Matakevich played 40 snaps against the Bengals before a shoulder injury ended his play on defense. Matakevich still managed to play some special teams but did not have the shoulder for regular defensive work. Mike Tomlin had noted that the shoulder injury was a special teams injury from earlier in the season. He had been playing through this injury for a while and made it worse with his defensive snaps.
Word out of OTAs is that Matakevich was taking snaps next to Vince Williams and that he would enter camp with every chance to earn a starting job. The timetable was a bit sped up to the injury of Shazier, but the Steelers are hoping that Matakevich can follow the Williams mold of star special teams stud to a starter.
Matakevich is smaller and quicker, which could be a nice contrast to the big, powerful profile of Williams. Matakevich also has the experience calling plays and has impressed the Steelers with his understanding. This is what is going to be his case for starting next season.
Matakevich is signed for the next two seasons. If they do get starting caliber linebacker play out of the seventh-round pick for those two seasons that is a huge bonus to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The question is whether or not a duo of Tyler Matakevich and Vince Williams could actually last long term.
The fact of the matter is that neither of these players are good athletes. Look at Tyler Matakevich combine performance compared to Ryan Shazier.
And now we want him replacing Shazier? With Matakevich and Williams, there is limited speed and talent on the field. The Steelers can run nickel and dime sets that limit the time in which they are out there together. Still, it feels as though by the end of this season the team would have to pick one or the other and try to upgrade one of these spots in the offseason.
Jon Bostic was a second-round pick by the Chicago Bears. He was able to start in 17 games over his first two years with the team. However, injuries have always been the issue with Bostic. When the Bears switched coaches and defensive schemes, Bostic was off to New England, where he never caught on. From there, Indianapolis, where he is coming off of his best season.
Bostic is only 26 years old and has 32 starts under his wing. He has some injury questions, and he will have to learn the playbook. However, it feels as though Matakevich being over Bostic on the depth chart is a formality for Bostic to have the incentive to prove himself in camp.
One thing in which Bostic has proven more than any player on the Steelers depth chart is his ability to communicate and get his defense in line. He is a smart player, who will not let communication breakdowns cost his team. This was a huge issue for the Steelers last season.
So while he is bigger, stronger and faster than Matakevich, Bostic should win the job based on the thing between his ears. This likely means Bostic leading the linebackers in snaps, as he is the better coverage option than Vince Williams in specific nickel and dime sets.
Still, Bostic, like Matakevich is only signed for the next two seasons. However, even between Williams, Matakevich, and Bostic, it feels as though Bostic has the best chance of sticking around the longest. Health is going to be the biggest question for him. Still, the Steelers signed a younger linebacker with starting experience, play calling experience and a great report against the run. It is completely on Bostic to not only earn a starting job next season but also turn that into a consistent job that gives him the ability to start even further down the road.
This is going to be a quick one. Fort has made a name for himself and has earned a roster spot with special teams play. However, it is extremely daunting to note that when the team came down to a decision of Fort, or Sean Spence, signed fresh off of the street, they chose Sean Spence.
Fort may make the team again due to his special team’s value. The question becomes if you will never feel comfortable starting him, at what point does another special teamer with more upside take his job? The team lacks depth and has questionable starter talent. Shouldn’t his roster spot go to someone who might be able to start if Bostic and Matakevich go down to injuries, which has happened?
Fort is a UFA after this season. Even if he makes the roster, we know that he does not have a true future or any starting input for the Steelers. It would be tough to justify bringing him back if the team still had intentions of improving this group next offseason.
Thomas is the player to watch. Thomas is UDFA from Florida State. When he signed his letter of intent, he has rated the top outside linebacker in the country, the fourth best player in the state of Florida and the eighth best player in the country. From there, his personal life began to fall apart.
Between family issues and issues with team rules, Thomas was suspended once by the team and was ruled academically ineligible a year later. That, along with a shoulder injury has crushed every chance Thomas had of being drafted. Still, Thomas went to the NFL combine and began to get teams attention.
The Steelers brought Thomas in pre-draft for a meeting and Thomas talked about signing with the Steelers due to their depth chart uneasiness.
The issue with Thomas is that he is inexperienced. This is a high caliber athlete who has everything you would want from a starting linebacker in the NFL. However, he does not know how to do anything of the functional and understanding duties of an NFL player. He can get caught watching, he can take poor angles and can take himself out of plays. So while there is a lot of upside in his profile, it would be a stretch to see him on the field for the Steelers defense next season.
Still, Thomas can take the slow route. With L.J. Fort as his competition for LB4 and the potential of 5 linebackers making the team anyways, Thomas should have a decent shot of making the roster. From there, his progression up the depth chart is on him. He will have the chance to learn the playbook and grow discipline on special teams. Think of him as the higher upside version of Williams or Matakevich.
When betting on which of these five Steelers will be starting in the next three years, I am certainly going to have some of my chips on Matthew Thomas’ name. He is what you expect from a Steelers project turned the starter. In terms of athletic profile, he has the highest ceiling of any of these five players. He is the youngest and could be under team control the longest.
When it comes to the short term, expect Bostic to lead the way with Matakevich and Vince Williams seeing the field as well. However, in the future, the name to watch out for in terms of in-season progression will be Matthew Thomas.