The Pittsburgh Steelers are known for producing some of the of the most dominant linebackers since 1970. From Jack Lambert to Greg Lloyd to Joey Porter and James Harrison, linebackers have been the backbone of their defense. They were prominent and dominant during six Super Bowl wins, and are the key to another title run. The Steelers seemed to be building another strong unit with three consecutive first-round picks selections. Jarvis Jones (2013), Ryan Shazier (2014), and Bud Dupree (2015) brought athleticism and high hopes. Five years later, the Steelers have more questions than answers from a unit that failed them in the postseason. The most pressing Steelers offseason needs begins at linebacker heading into free agency and the draft.
Pittsburgh Steelers Off-Season Needs at Linebacker
Since the mid-1970s, the Steelers trademark on defense has been pressuring the quarterback and stuffing the run. They have cashed in on that trademark defense for six Super Bowl titles and the most NFL wins since 1970. The Steelers have been trying to build another dominant defense since their trip to Super Bowl XLV. The defense isn’t that far away. Despite how the season ended, and despite the failures of the run defense, which led to big plays in the secondary, there’s hope. The problems within this unit go beyond the talent level remaining after the loss of Shazier. The Steelers have to fix multiple issues with this unit, including the addition of talent through free agency and the draft. Here’s how Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin satisfy the Steelers offseason needs at linebacker.
Replace Ryan Shazier in the Draft
In truth, it’s about impossible to replace the talent level of Shazier, but they must focus on finding his replacement in the draft. With cap issues, and a desire to re-sign Le’Veon Bell, the draft is the logical choice. The top prospects in the draft as of now are Roquan Smith (Georgia), Rashaan Evans (Alabama), and Darius Leonard (South Carolina State). The Steelers would have to trade up to get Smith or Evans in the first round, which they should consider doing. Smith is the closest thing this draft has to offer while Evans is a close second.
The Steelers would be doing all right if they ended up with Leonard. He isn’t as fast as Smith or Evans, but Leonard has a knack for making plays, with 42 tackles for loss in three years at South Carolina State. 13.5 of those tackles for loss went for quarterback sacks. He’s impressed with his coverage ability while playing the run from sideline to sideline. The Steelers can find their replacement for Shazier in this draft if they’re willing to be aggressive. Trading up is not something the Steelers are known for doing, this would be a good draft to do so.
Become Proficient at the Little Things
The loss of Shazier exposed one of the defenses biggest flaws: defending the run. The Steelers had issues stopping the run throughout the season, most notably in three losses to the Chicago Bears and the Jacksonville Jaguars. The defense surrendered 617 yards on the ground in those games, and 458 in three others. The coaching staff must hold players accountable for not carrying out assignments, a lack of gap discipline, and missing tackles. The coaches install the scheme each week, but it’s up to the players to execute it. It’s up to the players to stay within themselves and carry out their responsibilities. Executing the game plan starts with being proficient at doing the basics. That includes wrapping up and tackling, plugging the gaps and trusting others to do their jobs.
Maybe it’s a coincidence, maybe it’s not, but linebackers tackling skills seem to have eroded since Joey Porter joined the staff. In addition to the alarming number of missed tackles, the Steelers have had problems developing draft picks at the position. Two number one draft picks have failed to reach their potential under Porter, Jones, and Dupree. Porter should know better, that wrapping up and making the tackle is more important than the highlight reel hit. Perhaps that is just a symptom of Porter failing to properly develop the talent he’s been given. Perhaps he is the reason linebacker remains one of the primary Steelers offseason needs.
Free Agent Inside Linebackers Don’t Measure Up
The answer to the Steelers off-season needs at linebacker, specifically inside, is not through free agency. The idea is not only to replace Shazier but to find someone better than Vince Williams. This isn’t a knock on Williams, who exceeded expectations, but a cold hard fact. Williams is a hard worker and a self-made starter, but his skill set is better suited to being Robin rather than Batman. If Williams has to continue his role as being the guy, the defense is in trouble in 2018.
If the Steelers explore free agency for anything more than depth at the position, they are making a mistake, because there is nobody better than Williams available. Williams is much better and more effective as the sidekick than the hero. He’s turned out to be an above average Blitzer, and a sure-tackling thumper to boot. He was an outstanding compliment to Shazier but faltered as the man. Pairing him with a washed-up player like Brian Cushing or Navorro Bowman would only further erode the position.
Steelers Off-Season Needs at Outside Linebacker
The Steelers biggest need at outside linebacker is for Dupree to live up to his status as a number one draft pick. He has all the talent in the world much like Jones did, but has only shown flashes. Porter failed to develop Jones and is failing to do so with Dupree. If Porter can learn to develop linebackers as well as he’s learned to get tossed from Pittsburgh bars, the position would be stacked. Jones was Porter’s first failure as a coach and hopefully, Dupree is not his second.
The return of promising prospect Keion Adams could provide promising depth to the rotation. The Steelers really liked what he was doing before his shoulder injury, so much so, that they placed him on injured reserve. T.J. Watt faded toward the end of the season, but consistently made plays until he ran into that rookie wall. The lessons he learned from older brother J.J. Watt served him well, as Watt carried himself with the presence of a seasoned veteran. Once again, it’s hard to imagine the Steelers looking to free agency to bring for an outside linebacker. They will likely add one in the draft though.
Last Word on Steelers Off-Season Needs at Linebacker
The tragic injury to Shazier elevated inside linebacker to the primary position of need this offseason. Jerry Olsavsky was doing a great job with the inside linebackers. It’s no coincidence the run defense suffered without Shazier, leaving the secondary vulnerable to play action passes. Unfortunately, the wrong coach may have paid the price.
The Steelers would have been better off if Porter had stepped down. Based on the eye test to this point, talented linebacker and coach Porter = bust, first with Jones and now possibly with Dupree. Both linebackers have shown periodic flashes but have never been able to put it all together. It will be interesting to see Porter’s effect on Watt in his second season. If Watt becomes Porter’s third straight pupil to regress in their second season, it’s time for Porter to go as well.