A hallmark of the Pittsburgh Steelers defense under Dick LeBeau is the role the inside linebackers play. More than just protecting the second level and containing running backs, the Steelers also want their inside backers to contribute in coverage and, most importantly, bring pressure to opposing quarterbacks by blitzing up the middle.
Therefore, in Pittsburgh, inside linebacker is a very specialized position that requires the right combination of aggression, speed and tackling technique to master. Last year, only one inside linebacker fit this mold—Lawrence Timmons, who led the team in tackles, defensed five passes, had two interceptions and had three sacks.
Next to him on the left saw a rotation of players, beginning with Larry Foote, who landed on injured reserve early in the season. Kion Wilson took over for Foote for two weeks before the starting job went to Vince Williams. Foote, Wilson and Williams had no passes defensed, no sacks and no interceptions between them. Terence Garvin, who primarily played special teams, also had a handful of snaps at the position and totaled 11 tackles.
This year should be different, however. Foote is gone, now playing for the Arizona Cardinals. And the Steelers added a pair of inside linebackers in the 2014 NFL draft, players who better meet the needs of the position. Let's take a look at each linebacker who is in the running to replace Foote and see who could come away with the job for the upcoming season.
It only seems fair to start with the player who held the left inside linebacker job the longest last year, Vince Williams. Williams, the Steelers' 2013 sixth-round draft pick, started 11 games after Foote's season-ending biceps tear.
He had 53 combined tackles, including four tackles for a loss in 2013, but he did little more. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Williams only managed to pressure an opposing quarterback once. He also gave up 13 of 16 passes thrown his way for 74 yards and 42 yards after the catch. He did not, however, give up a touchdown in the passing game.
Williams will likely be pushed down the depth chart due to the Steelers drafting Ryan Shazier in Round 1 and Jordan Zumwalt in Round 6 of this year's draft. He is a valuable run-stopping specialist, but he doesn't have the speed or athleticism to handle the myriad of demands the Steelers place on their starting inside linebackers.
He does have the advantage of holding the starting job last year. LeBeau's defense is a complicated one, and it is uncommon for rookies to start unless circumstances like Foote's injury force them into the position. Williams knows the system; if the younger players take longer than expected to grasp the defense, then he could end up starting initially, if not be part of a rotation.
In another defense, Williams could be a serviceable, if not high-quality starter. But because he doesn't have the pass-rush or pass-coverage components to his game, he's a long shot to reprise his role as starter this year.
As the Steelers' first-round draft pick this year, eyes are firmly on former Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier—doubly so because there is a clear vacancy at inside linebacker. His draft pedigree gives him the fast track to win the job, and his on-field performance in college certainly illustrates why the Steelers were so bullish on drafting him.
Shazier was the Big Ten's leading tackler in 2013, racking up 144 combined tackles, including 23.5 for a loss. He also had seven sacks and defensed four passes. Clearly, he has the all-around skill set the Steelers want in their style of inside linebacker. He also has the necessary speed, running an unofficial (and impressive) 4.36-second 40-yard dash at Ohio State's pro day.
In Shazier's favor, the rookie has been working with the first-team defense in Pittsburgh's organized team activities. However, his true potential as a starter won't really begin to reveal itself until training camp begins later in the summer. With pads on, contact allowed and a faster pace, Shazier's inherent "rookie-ness" could be exposed.
Still, Shazier seems destined for the Steelers' starting lineup, even if that doesn't happen in 2014. He has the speed, coverage skills and pass-rush ability that fit the defense perfectly—he'll never have to leave the field. His role in this season will depend on how quickly he can pick up the system.
The Steelers selected former UCLA linebacker Jordan Zumwalt in the sixth round of the 2014 NFL draft. Zumwalt could certainly challenge Williams and Shazier for the weak-side linebacker position, though he does have an uphill battle to get there.
Zumwalt has a number of similarities to Shazier. He's versatile and aggressive, can pressure quarterbacks and can work in coverage. He has respectable speed, running a 4.76-second 40-yard dash at the scouting combine and 4.74-second and 4.79-second dashes at his pro day.
He's athletic—just not as athletic as Shazier. He's fast—just not as fast as Shazier. And he's good in coverage—just not as good as Shazier. Zumwalt had 91 combined tackles in 2013, including 6.5 for a loss, two passes defensed and a forced fumble. He was certainly not as prolific a pass-rusher, with no sacks in 2013 and five over his four-year collegiate career.
Zumwalt's chance to climb the ranks of the defense will come during training camp, where he may be able to separate himself from Shazier once the pads are on. His competitive nature is one of his most positive traits, and it could work to his advantage in camp.
If not, Zumwalt could still make the Steelers' 53-man roster as a backup linebacker—especially considering he has experience playing on both the inside and outside—and special-teams ace.
When Foote went down with a torn biceps last season, the first player the Steelers turned to to replace him was Kion Wilson, who joined the team in January of last year. He played in three games, starting in both Weeks 2 and 3 before being supplanted by Vince Williams.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Wilson played a total of 41 snaps last season. He recorded 12 tackles and one quarterback hurry in his short time as a starter. He also played special teams for three additional games.
Wilson, however, suffers from the same problems as Williams—he's a bit player, a good piece of linebacker depth, but he doesn't possess all the tools to be a starter on the inside in LeBeau's system. He's not fast enough, not rangy enough and not hard-hitting enough to leapfrog a first-round talent like Shazier or Williams, who spent so much time at the position last season.
Wilson might be fighting for a roster spot, depending on how things shake out with the rest of the inside linebackers. He'll need to continue to prove his worth on special teams in order to stick on the roster as a backup to Timmons and the Williams-Shazier duo.
Terence Garvin's name is worth mentioning as part of this battle only because he did see playing time in 2013—33 snaps between Weeks 10 and 16, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), including starting at weak-side linebacker in Week 16.
Of Garvin's 11 total tackles in 2013, 10 of them came as a special teamer, not as a linebacker. Of all of the players in the running for Foote's old job, Garvin probably has the longest shot at winning it. Special teams appear to be his bread and butter for the time being, and he'll need to shine there to maintain a roster spot in 2014.
It's likely that the Steelers wouldn't have an inside linebacker battle on their hands this year if 2012 third-round draft pick Sean Spence didn't suffer a major knee injury in the preseason of his rookie year. Spence tore his ACL and LCL, dislocated his kneecap and sustained nerve damage. To say it was a career-threatening injury would be an understatement; there was a chance his leg would never be normal again.
After two years of slowly rehabbing the leg—and a finger injury that landed him on injured reserve in 2013—Spence appears to be on track to participate fully in the Steelers' upcoming training camp. Per Scott Brown of ESPN, head coach Mike Tomlin said in early May that he has been given "a clean bill of health," and he was on the field during organized team activities without a knee brace.
It appears he is ready to resume his playing career—something linebackers coach Keith Butler describes, per Brown, as "getting really close to being miraculous" considering the overwhelming severity of the injury. Prior to the injury, Spence was in the mold of Shazier—fast, hard-hitting, versatile—and if he can get on the practice field and work at full strength and speed, he could give Shazier and others a hefty dose of competition.
There is also the psychological aspect of Spence's injury that he will have to overcome. As Grantland's Neal Gabler notes in his comprehensive look at ACL tears, "An ACL tear is not just a gremlin in the knee; it’s a gremlin in the brain. You have to convince yourself that you can be exactly who you were, and that is very hard to do."
Spence's injury went beyond just a torn ACL, though—his entire knee was, for lack of a better word, shredded. His ability to play football again was in serious doubt. Even if his knee is just as stable as it was before the injury, he'll have to convince himself that that's the case, that he can take the rigors of training camp and live-game action without dwelling on how his knee is holding up.
If Spence can get past that mental hurdle, then he could certainly press favorites Shazier and Williams for the starting job. If not, it could cost him a roster spot. At the very least, Spence could get back into the pace of the game by spending 2014 on special teams.
It appears at this early date that the battle for inside linebacker will come down to Shazier and Williams, with Zumwalt potentially pushing into the discussion. Wilson and Garvin will be battling simply for a spot on special teams and the opportunity to be a backup.
Who do you think will win the Steelers' starting inside linebacker job?
Spence is the wild card of the group. Now that he's out of the knee brace and able to be a full participant in practice, he could conceivably take over the weak-side job. He'll have to prove that he's the player he was when the Steelers drafted him, however, and not one coming off of practically the most devastating knee injury any NFL player has suffered in recent years.
Regardless, the Steelers were able to find a pair of players in the 2014 draft that fit the mold of their ideal inside linebacker. They have at least three other linebackers who could provide valuable depth and special teams help. This was once a thin position for the team, and now it's shaping up to produce one of the most compelling training camp battles for the Steelers this year.