I don’t know about you, but I found it to be something of a surprise after Pittsburgh Steelers fourth-year inside linebacker Ryan Shazier came off the practice field yesterday with a minor injury. Not that Shazier suffered an injury—that has certainly happened often enough—but rather the personnel ramifications that followed.
That is because the linebacker who came onto the field to line up with the first-team defense to replace Shazier, the mack, was Tyler Matakevich, the second-year special teamer who seems to profile as the quintessential buck.
That was, after all, one the questions that needed to be answered this offseason as the Steelers transition away from Lawrence Timmons, who signed with the Dolphins this spring, in the starting lineup. With Vince Williams being promoted from top backup to starter, a new hierarchy behind him needed to be established.
And it wasn’t clear whether the Steelers intended to simply have one linebacker serve as the primary reserve for both spots or if they wanted to specialize one player for the reserve mack and one for the reserve buck.
They have utilized both approaches over the years, but with questions about Matakevich’s agility in coverage, and the fact that he has about a dozen snaps’ worth of defensive experience it seemed as likely as not that they might want to diversify the responsibilities.
Obviously, the coaches do like Matakevich quite a bit. They drafted him last year, after all, because he is simply a football player, as they said in the post-draft press conference. He makes a ton of tackles when he is on the field, simply put.
And that is what he has been doing so far in training camp as well. According to Alex Kozora, he has not been faring all too poorly in coverage, either, which seemed to be in contrast to spring reports. According to Jim Wexell (in an article behind a paywall), it was suggested to him that they wanted to test him in the spring, so they threw a lot at him.
Perhaps those trials are now bearing fruit, but, as always, the ultimate test will come when they get into the preseason games and he shows what he can do. Matakevich did record an interception in the preseason last year, and had a handful his senior year of college.
College and preseason games are not exactly at the same level of competition as a regular season game, of course, but it is better than nothing. Still, I wouldn’t think that it’s a done deal just yet, and if there is room for a mack specialist, it will probably be L.J. Fort.
While fans might not have reason to know a great deal about him, the coaching staff has been pretty high on him for the past three seasons now, and he is clearly the most athletic of the reserve inside linebackers. He has made some plays so far in training camp, and will hope to push for a role as we move forward.