It is true that the Pittsburgh Steelers currently appear to have a plethora of talent at the inside linebacker position, a unit on the defense that is headlined by Pro Bowl buck linebacker Lawrence Timmons. The team had three other inside linebacker play at approximately a quarter of the defensive snaps or more.
The fact that there is a perception of an abundance at inside linebacker has even given rise to the absurd notion that the Steelers should give serious consideration to trading Timmons, who is arguably the team’s best player on the defensive side of the ball—which is an easy enough case to make, since he’s the only player on defense who made the Pro Bowl.
Silly rumors aside, there remains the fact that the Steelers have three other inside linebackers to go along with one other starting spot in the lineup, and it will be interesting to see how the team, and new defensive coordinator Keith Butler, approach the position as the offseason progresses, as well as how the spot develops in real time during the regular season.
It is not a foregone conclusion, for example, that Pittsburgh is looking for a player to log every single snap at the mack linebacker spot, with Mike Tomlin taking his team deeper and deeper into the philosophies of situational football and the value of mixing and matching personnel based on your own alignment as well as the alignment of your opponents.
For the majority of the season, for example, the Steelers chose to start third-year linebacker Sean Spence in the base defense. Though it was technically his first year of actually playing due to injury, the coaching staff was most comfortable with his knowledge of the defense. They also most trusted his work in coverage, whether that view was justified by his performance or not.
When the Steelers moved to their nickel defense, however, which became more prominent as the season progressed, the coaching staff looked for an answer to opposing offenses exploiting their smaller lineup by running the ball.
The solution was to install second-year linebacker Vince Williams, who entered as the buck linebacker and slid Timmons over to the mack. Though this rotation led to some promising results, it was certainly not a complete solution, and there’s no way that’s the way they’ll approach the position in 2015.
The Steelers will be eager to get Ryan Shazier, their 2014 first-round draft pick, back onto the field. They made him an opening day starter and didn’t sub him out often, but he quickly accumulated injuries throughout his rookie season that limited him to about 250 snaps and saw him ultimately lose his starting spot.
2015 is a new year, and Pittsburgh now has better intel on all three of these players. Will they give Shazier the chance to assume full-time duties with limited to no substitutions? Or do they consider the assets of Spence and Williams too valuable not to incorporate? Could one of them even be the starter? Each candidate has a case to make, to be certain, and I will attempt to do so in the coming days.