The Pittsburgh Steelers have, by and large, been on an upward swing over the course of the past two and a half seasons after they missed the playoffs for two straight seasons, and failed to win a postseason game in four straight years.
Last season saw them gain that elusive playoff victory, though they came up short with about three minutes left in the Divisional round a week later. Their offense took off, and their defense improved, showing playmaking ability and opportunism.
But there are still a lot of unanswered questions facing the team as we crack into free agency territory. As an exercise, we like to take a stab at some of those questions, presenting arguments for the pros and cons of each side of the coin. This is the pessimist’s take on the following question.
Question: Will the Steelers overload at linebacker this season?
Let’s kick this off by saying that 11 is an awful lot of linebackers. A team choosing to carry 11 linebackers on their 53-man roster is allocating a full 20-plus percent of their roster resources to a single position where only four play at a time, whereas the team often carries only eight offensive linemen while five play at a time.
Of course, offensive linemen are also not a special teams staple the way that linebackers are, and that would naturally be the impetus to carry such a high number, as was the case for them by the end of the 2015 season, when they ended the year with that number at the position on their roster.
But that included some extenuating circumstances, such as the late-season promotion of inside linebacker L.J. Fort from the practice squad, who was brought up for special teams purposes after Roosevelt Nix was placed on injured reserve.
The 10th linebacker, Terence Garvin, is no longer on the team after the Steelers chose not to extend him a restricted free agent tender and he chose to sign with Washington. He was a four-phase special teams contributor, which helped make it easy to overload at linebacker.
Anthony Chickillo is a player who was not on the opening-day roster, but was promoted three games into the season. The Steelers just drafted another outside linebacker, while not losing any, so it may be safe to assume that they would like to carry five outside linebackers as they did last year.
But it’s not even certain that they intend to carry five inside linebackers this year after they lost not one, but two in free agency. They signed one in free agency, and also drafted Tyler Matakevich in the seventh round, a player that they described as the highest player left on their board at the time.
But to make the obvious statement, the only way that the Steelers, or any team, carries 11 linebackers is if they have a dearth of talent at other positions, and that is not a good problem to have. Even assuming that they would only carry 23 offensive players, that leaves just 16 roster spots to make up the defensive line and the entire secondary, to which they are adding three draft picks in the first two rounds from the past two draft classes.
In other words, if the Steelers carry 11 linebackers, that probably says something negative about multiple other areas of their roster. And such scenarios tend only to begin to creep up during the season, not just as it starts. But they will no doubt have at least 12 linebackers between the 53-man roster and the practice squad, I suspect, as they did initially last year.