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‘Starter’ May Not Mean Much In ILB Competition

Earlier this offseason, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin basically said that the starting jobs across about half of the defense can be deemed as legitimately up for grabs in training camp and the preseason this year. This is, of course, not exactly the norm for a team who won double-digit games, along with a division title, in the year prior.

But that is indeed where the Steelers find themselves, with, arguably, three positions in the secondary, and another three at the linebacker level, open for competition. The defensive line is the only unit on defense that has some manner of stability within the starting lineup.

I believe the most interesting competition to watch will take place at inside linebacker next to Lawrence Timmons, where there are three players with starting experience, each of whom logged at least 250 snaps a year ago.

While it has been a fun and enlightening exercise exploring the pros and cons of each candidate individually, however, now it’s time to take a broader look at the position as a whole, and view the position in light of the fact that we should probably expect it to be somewhat of a platoon.

The Steelers already obviously used the platoon strategy quite frequently last season, partly because they had a rookie starter, partly because said starter was injured, and partly because one player was more suited to one task than another.

Because of Ryan Shazier’s time spent on the sideline, the Steelers got the opportunity to get some long looks at both Vince Williams, in his second year of playing time, and Sean Spence, who of course saw action for the first time last season despite being in his third year.

The takeaway of this experience is that the coaching staff determined that they like what they see in all three players, and would likely to take advantage of the resources available to them. How this ends up happening may remain to be seen.

The value of this strategy is also debatable, of course. There is an obvious value in having one player on the field for every snap, though at the same time there are pros to being able to rotate as well, including freshness and specialization.

So how might they all be used? Will it be based on snap counts? For example, before Shazier was injured, the coaches gave Spence a series or two each game. As the season progressed, Williams became the nickel inside linebacker due to his ability to play the run, which obviously favors the package strategy of splitting time.

Shazier’s superior speed obviously gives him the greatest sideline-to-sideline range of the three candidates for the position, which would make him more valuable in certain situations than in others, while Williams has shown the greatest ability to get off blockers or blow up lead blockers.

It’s hard to predict how this situation might unfold, in part because there’s so much we have yet to see from these three players, but also because we don’t know what new defensive coordinator Keith Butler has in mind. But if I were to guess, I would expect that there will be a rotation of some sort, in whatever form it ends up taking.

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