Rebuilding A Champion: ILB Depth May Rival Recent Super Bowl Contenders

The Pittsburgh Steelers spent much of the time between their last playoff victory and now replenishing their roster in preparation for their next chance to make a push for a championship. Last season showed signs that the team was on its way out of that transitional phase after posting a division-winning 11-5 record following back to back .500 seasons.

Still, the Steelers failed to make it out of the divisional round, and have lost their last three postseason contests, dating back to Super Bowl XLV. They followed up that 2010 run with a 12-4 wildcard campaign that saw a first-round exit, and subsequently failed to return to the playoffs the following two years.

So how close might they be to righting the ship and returning to that place that they have been more than any other franchise—that is, holding up the Lombardi Trophy? One way to attempt to measure that would be to compare how this season’s lineup projects against past teams.

For these purposes, it might be helpful to cite both the 2008 and 2010 teams, which are, respectively, the teams that have claimed their most recent Super Bowl championship and their most recent Super Bowl appearance.

If there’s one place that the Steelers stand a chance to stack up to on defense in comparison to the Super Bowl teams of the recent past, it might just be the inside linebacker position. We’ve already covered the starters, but their current backups also have notable starting experience.

Not that the depth chart during the 2008 and 2010 seasons were slacking. Of course, in 2008, Lawrence Timmons was still sitting behind Larry Foote, and those two reversed roles in 2010. Keyaron Fox was the other inside linebacker in both years, and he proved to be a serviceable contributor.

Stevenson Sylvester was drafted as an inside linebacker, but he actually ended up playing a lot of outside linebacker during his career. When the Steelers released Thaddeus Gibson in the middle of the 2010 season, Sylvester moved from inside to outside. He also ended up playing outside at the end of the 2013 season due to injuries.

But of course Sylvester was never the major contributor. In 2008, it was Timmons, and in 2010, it was Foote. Timmons would become the starter the following season, and has been there since then, but in 2008, he logged a significant amount of playing time, rotating with Foote, and also taking reps all around the defense.

Foote saw the writing on the wall and asked for his release, but he came back to serve as a super-sub in 2010, rotating with the starters and making his expected contributions. Of course, he ended up back in the starting lineup.

Today, the Steelers are very fond of their two top reserves, Vince Williams and Sean Spence. Spence is a bit too small to play much of the buck, while Williams is on the larger side and not fast enough, perhaps, to play consistently at the mack, but both of them have shown a lot over the past two seasons.

Of course, Spence was in his third season last year in spite of seeing his first bit of playing time. We already know that story. He should only be better after having a season of contact under his belt now.

Williams is a relentless player with impressive work ethic. He seems like the kind of player who is going to end up finding his way onto the field throughout his career even if he’s never really given a role.

Behind these two is Terence Garvin, who is a special teams ace. He has gotten just a taste of defensive work in his first two seasons, and really, it’s unclear if he can ever carve out a role for himself, but with Spence and Williams ahead of him, it hasn’t really been necessary, which is a testament to the quality depth available at the position.

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