While Penn State has earned the moniker “linebacker U” in the college ranks, the pro equivalent of that is the Pittsburgh Steelers. Ever since the dynasty of 70’s the Steelers have had depth at linebacker. While the front four was dominant back then, it was the linebacker’s corps that struck fear in the hearts of opponents. That’s right Jack Lambert, Jack Ham and Andy Russell roamed the field like predators. Lambert and Ham made pro-bowls well into the 80’s, and even when the team was rebuilding they were still stacked at linebacker.
Cementing a Legacy
Bill Cowher’s “Blitzburgh” defenses were over-flowing with talent. There was Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Levon Kirkland and Chad Brown. That crew transitioned into Jason Gildon, Kendrell Bell and Joey Porter. They were able to lose Bell to injuries and Porter to free-agency and still field James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons and James Farrior. The latter starting four linebackers dominated for the Steelers when they won their sixth Super Bowl.
So, what in the name of Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin is going on? Don’t get me wrong. Ryan Shazier is a unique talent, and as the senior bowl practices continue it’s clear that there’s no Shazier level 3-4 middle linebackers in this year’s draft.
The Steelers problem is three-fold; father time, talent level, and the intimidation factor. Sad to say, but when James Harrison walked out those doors, the Steelers may have lost their last great enforcer at the linebacker position. His mentality was to take the fine and let you know you were playing the Steelers than change his style of play.
Front Office Accountability
Face it, there aren’t any potential stars sitting on the Steelers bench when it comes to linebacker. Anthony Chickillo? Under achiever. Sean Spence? Not an NFL talent at this point. Arthur Moats? A roll player. Tyler Matakevich, a seventh round pick with seventh round measurables is considered the best backup the Steelers best backup. Getting scared? I am. And it’s for the Steelers, not opposing offenses.
Talent Limiting the Playbook
The Steelers had to reduce their use of the cross-fire blitz this year, a blitz which forces the offensive center to make a decision block on the first or second middle linebacker. This matches the free linebacker to a running back in pass protection. How do you think running backs felt when 270-pound Levon Kirkland was coming at them? Or 240-pound and athletic Lawrence Timmons?
They were scared and outmatched. Thus, the beauty of this blitz. It was a staple of Dick Lebeau’s defense and Keith Butler’s for a time as well. Shazier was able to use his speed to get past blockers and pressure the quarterback. However, when there’s not enough talent to run one of your staple defensive plays, the roster needs a make-over.
With Le’Veon Bell and Ben Roethlisberger’s careers winding down in Pittsburgh the Steelers need to bring in reinforcements immediately. If he isn’t franchise tagged, the New York Jets Demario Davis should be the Steelers main target. With the Redskins Zach Brown and the Oakland Raiders NaVorro Bowman as alternate options. The Buffalo Bills Preston Brown had an absurd year with 144 tackles and shouldn’t be forgotten either.
On the outside, the Raiders Aldon Smith is an intriguing option and he’s still only 28. A scenery change from the bay area could be good for him. Connor Barwin had five sacks as a rotational player for the Los Angeles Rams and Sam Acho had 17 quarterback hits while playing for a Chicago Bears team that bested the Steelers. All would be instant upgrades and would be worked into the rotation with a young T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree.
Adding any of these guys would shore up a linebacker corps that will look extremely different in 2018. As the draft edges closer, and free agency kicks into gear it’ll be interesting to see what the Steelers front office decides to do. One thing is known; when the Jacksonville Jaguars can score 45 points on the Steelers in Pittsburgh, the answers aren’t on the roster at the moment.
View the original article on Last Word On Pro Football: The Curious Case of Pittsburgh Steelers Linebackers