The Pittsburgh Steelers are going to have to think long and hard about what approach they are going to take to the inside linebacker position this offseason, because it is certainly not an area of the team that they can leave untouched. It was their biggest issue on either side of the ball down the stretch, and there are no signs of it getting better.
This all centers around the injury to Ryan Shazier, the team’s fourth-year Pro Bowl mack linebacker, who set the defense as the ‘quarterback’ of the unit, the one with the green dot on his helmet indicating that he got the plays in through the microphone from the sideline.
In his first 11 games during the 2017 season, during which he hardly missed a snap, Shazier recorded a career-high 89 tackles, two forced fumbles, three interceptions, and 11 passes defensed. He has been the playmaker on defense for three years now, producing 14 turnovers in that span to go along with a couple dozen passes defensed and seven sacks.
But the team had nobody to fill his shoes when he was injured. Vince Williams would have been that guy, but he was already in the starting lineup, having inherited the buck linebacker role for Lawrence Timmons. And the Steelers did not address the depth.
Instead, they banked on developing Tyler Matakevich, and working with players such as L.J. Fort and Steven Johnson, among their depth. When all else failed, they brought back Sean Spence, who unfortunately played like somebody who had been in the bench or the couch for most of the season.
The team certainly cannot enter this offseason under the assumption that they will ever get Shazier back. And they certainly cannot enter this offseason under the assumption that they currently have a starting mack linebacker on their roster.
If that is the case, then they necessarily have to go out and get one. But how will they manage to do so? Would they draft an inside linebacker in the first round, the fifth linebacker taken in the first round over the past six draft classes?
The team has obviously gotten used to starting rookies on defense, something that had been virtually taboo under Dick LeBeau. Among the players who have entered the starting lineup during their rookie season in recent years are Shazier himself, followed by Stephon Tuitt, Bud Dupree, Javon Hargrave, Artie Burns, Sean Davis, and most recently, T.J. Watt.
There is no guarantee that their linebacker will be there, however, and the alternative would be free agency. They will not have the cap space to go after any big-name player, but it is not impossible that they could bring in a lesser-known commodity who could at least function as a bridge starter that will not be that much of a liability, even supplementing his playing time with more dime defense.