Who Will Win Pittsburgh Steelers' Inside Linebacker Battle?

Chris Gazze@ChrisG_PITCorrespondent IMay 26, 2014

First-round draft pick Ryan Shazier will compete for the starting job at inside linebacker.
First-round draft pick Ryan Shazier will compete for the starting job at inside linebacker.Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Between free agency and the draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers took great measures to upgrade their defense during the offseason. One of the most important areas in need of improvement was inside linebacker, and they may have found a future star with first-round draft pick Ryan Shazier.

Shazier, an athletic linebacker from Ohio State, will not be handed the starting job, despite his draft status. Instead, he will be joined by Vince Williams, Terence Garvin and Sean Spence, as they vie for the starting job next to Lawrence Timmons in what will be one of the most hotly contested position battles of training camp.

Last year represented the worst season that Pittsburgh’s defense had in well over a decade. Needless to say, it was a far cry from its perennial finish at or near the top of the league in yards and points allowed.

2013 Pittsburgh Steelers' Defensive Rankings
Passing Yards Allowed9th
Rushing Yards Allowed21st
Total Yards Allowed13th
Fumble Recoveries15th
Points Allowed14th

The fall of the defense cannot be pinned on a single position, but the problem at inside linebacker did not help the cause. It is one of the reasons why the Steelers felt it was imperative to invest their first-round selection in the position.

So despite the defensive struggles in 2013, last year’s starter—Williams—will be the early favorite to take the starting job out of training camp.

Williams had an impressive rookie year considering he was a sixth-round draft choice who was not expected to start. He eventually would wrestle the starting job away from Kion Wilson, who had previously replaced an injured Larry Foote.

Vince Williams will enter training camp as the starter.
Vince Williams will enter training camp as the starter.Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

One of the reasons he was able to take over at such an early stage in his career was his knowledge of the defense.  Not even two month after he was drafted, Timmons told Dan Gigler of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he was impressed with Williams.

“He looks like a smart player. He’s very gifted with his athletic ability and I’m starting to get excited to see what he’s going to do in camp,” Timmons said.

Williams would continue to impress in the regular season, as he not only looked comfortable on the field making plays, but he also had the ability to call the defense as well. Head coach Mike Tomlin took note of this early in the season, via Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Vince is doing a nice job, not only in play but in communication and communicating in a timely and appropriate way. I think he's winning the confidence of the veteran defenders from that standpoint. Obviously, there is a lot of communication that comes with that job and he's done a nice job at that.

He appears to be a natural, but we'll continue to play he and Kion in an effort to get the best out of both until we get some clarity in terms of who is the guy that's going to rise up and seize that spot.

That is not to say that Williams had a perfect rookie season. In 11 starts he had 40 solo tackles and 13 assists, yet was not involved in any splash plays. He still needs to catch up to the speed of the NFL game and develop in pass coverage.

As a result, Williams was limited to being a two-down linebacker. That may be the case again if he earns a starting job.

With a year of experience the Steelers will need to see more out of Williams on first and second down. If he is billed as a “run-stuffer,” then he will need to do a better job at shedding blockers and stopping the run. This is particularly important without a true space-eater at nose tackle.

Unlike Williams, the other three contenders at inside linebacker are more athletic and can be three-down players on defense.

Pittsburgh Steelers' Inside Linebackers
Terence Gravin6'3"221232
Ryan Shazier6'1"23721R
Sean Spence5'11"231233
Vince Williams6'1"250242

The biggest sleeper in this group is Garvin.

Garvin had a solid training camp and preseason, but he was still a bit of surprise to make the final 53-man roster. Not only did he make it, but he was also a contributor with 15 games played as a rookie, including one start.

According to Football Outsiders, Garvin played 31 snaps on defense and 277 on special teams. Of his 308 snaps, none will be more remembered than when he destroyed Cincinnati Bengals’ punter Kevin Huber on a punt return by Antonio Brown.

It would be unfortunate to remember Garvin for that one play. He was so much more than that, including being a valuable member of the special teams.

Like most rookie linebackers on the Steelers, Garvin made his mark on special teams by ranking third on the team with nine tackles, according to Team Rankings.

As the season progressed, Garvin earned time with the defense, including one start. However, at 6’3” and 221 pounds, he does not have the frame to be an every-down player for the Steelers. Instead, he will be best fit as a role player and backup with the defense.

Another possibility is Spence, who was once thought to have needed a miracle to get back on the field by his own position coach. But after what has seemed like an eternity, linebacker coach Keith Butler told Teresa Varley of Steelers.com that the miracle just may happen.

From what I’ve seen on the field, I know I said about a year or so ago that it would be miraculous if he came back, and I hope he proves me wrong. It is getting really close to being miraculous. He looks real good to me.

We will see how the knee holds up when he starts hitting and things like that. Right now I’m real encouraged by the way he looks. He is such an exceptional young man and you hope that it works out for him, and I think it will.

Mike Tomlin added that Spence has been able to prepare the mental part of the game, but he will need to prove that he is physically capable of getting the job done, per Varley:

I don’t think that we’ll start from scratch. These haven’t been empty days for him since he’s been here with the rehabilitation process and what he’s been able to do in terms of learning our system of football.

I’m not going to assume that he’s starting from ground zero. I think that’s to be determined with how he performs and plays, but he’s been given a clean bill of health and we’ll go from there.

That is not to say that Spence will even add anything to the mix, but when reports have been out since March that he was ahead of schedule, the news is encouraging. 

Sean Spence way ahead of where #Steelers thought he would be, but.... http://t.co/wW5t5Seglw

— Gerry Dulac (@gerrydulac) March 8, 2014 

Spence was drafted out of Miami in the third round because of his athleticism and ability to drop into coverage. In essence, he was similar to the type of player they ended up drafting this year in the first round.

It will be a lot to ask of Spence to even return to the field, let alone earn a starting job. But for a man who has had to sit and wait to start his career, he will not be short on motivation.

Spence has the ability to shine on special teams if he is able to regain any of his running ability. From that point, who knows what he will be capable of? Given all that he must overcome, however, a starting job on this defense may be out of the question.

That leaves Williams’ top competitor as Shazier.

Shazier is a 6’1”, 237-pound linebacker who tested out as one of the most athletic linebackers at the combine, per NFL.com. He was even more impressive at his pro day where he ran the 40-yard dash unofficially in 4.36 seconds.

He continued to impress at the Steelers' rookie camp and caught the eye of Bob Labriola of Steelers.com.

What I noticed about him in these workouts was he just kind of had a little bit of a presence that you would expect, or hope for, from a number one pick. He stood out athletically. He was vocal.

I won’t say he was a leader in terms of telling other people what to do, because he was just learning what to do himself, but he was the first one up in every drill. He just had a presence, a vibe about him that you’re hoping to see from your number one pick.

Granted it is only football in shorts, but it is encouraging that the top pick in the draft at least looks the part early on. Now the Steelers need him to be the part.

A big reason that they have struggled on defense over the past couple of seasons has been due to the lack of playmakers. Shazier has a chance to be just that. 

In three years at Ohio State, Shazier had 210 tackles, 45.5 tackles for a loss, 15 sacks, one interception, 16 passes defended and nine forced fumbles, per Sports-Reference.com.  The Steelers can only hope for that type of production at the pro level.

Shazier will have to show those playmaking abilities in training camp and the preseason if he is going to beat out Williams and the others for the starting job. As long as his splash plays outweigh his rookie mistakes, Shazier will be a favorite in the eyes of the coaching staff.

A once thin area of the defense has potential to be one of the deeper units of the team when all is said and done, but the starting spot at inside linebacker should come down to Williams and Shazier.

Even though he will have plenty to learn, the Steelers will be in better position with Shazier in the starting lineup. He not only provides much-needed speed on defense, but he also has a high enough football IQ that he should be a quick on-the-job learner.

All stats are courtesy of ESPN.com, and all roster information is courtesy of Steelers.com, unless noted otherwise.  


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