It’s often said, and with good reason, that a roster’s hopes of improvement from one season to the next do not come from the current group of rookies, but rather the group, or groups, from a year or two earlier. Rookies, after all, have a lot to learn, and their thinking on the field prevents them from playing as quickly as they could once they know what they’re doing.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have some high expectations this year for many of their second- and third-year players, most notably cornerback Artie Burns, safety Sean Davis, defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, outside linebacker Bud Dupree, and wide receiver Sammie Coates. They would also love to see something from Senquez Golson.
But inside linebacker Tyler Matakevich is another player that they like, and who could take a step forward this year. Not, perhaps, into the starting lineup, but as a player whom they are comfortable putting on the field if need be—and as a special-teams standout.
Bob Labriola recently talked about Matakevich, among other rookies, during a broadcast on the team’s website, and he concurred that the team is encouraged about what he showed last season. Most important is the fact that he took quickly to his special-teams duties.
“He led the team in special teams tackles last year during the regular season with 12”, Labriola noted. And he also noted, or reminded, that “Lawrence Timmons left as an unrestricted free agent, and the Steelers did not really add to that spot either in the draft or with their undrafted rookies”.
“And so when you’re looking at who’s going to be backing up Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams, who will be the presumed starter alongside Ryan Shazier, you have the two veterans, Steven Johnson and L.J. Fort, and Matakevich”, he said.
He concluded that “there has to be some sort of hope that these guys can handle that job, or belief that they can handle the backup inside linebacker jobs, or the Steelers would have addressed that at some point this offseason”.
Labriola was not necessarily trumping his future on the defense, but he stressed the importance of success on special teams, describing it as “job security in the NFL”. He rattled off a list of former Steelers linebackers who started out as what he called “buttkickers on special teams first”.
“Tyler Matakevich, as I said with a team-leading 12 tackles on special teams last year, is indicating that he has what every linebacker in the NFL needs”, he added, which is “that ability to find the ball and then get the guy who’s carrying the ball on the ground”.
The inside linebacker position will be an interesting one to watch this preseason, not only to see if one of the futures players can push for a roster spot, but also to see how the veterans from last season handle defensive snaps in the preseason as they prepare for a more prominent reserve role. Matakevich could emerge as the leader in that category.