Training camp is right around the corner and like we have for the past few years, plan on being there for every single practice. Matthew Marczi has dutifully given us a low-down on most of the position groups already but with me going to St. Vincent in two weeks, I wanted to outline what I’m looking for from each player. We’ll start with the four quarterbacks on the roster.
Today, we’re the Steelers’ inside linebackers.
Vince Williams: I suppose it’s only fair to start with the inside linebacker who has the least to prove. Williams’ role is the only secure one, the team’s starting Buck linebacker, functionally a two-down position who comes off the field in dime packages. There isn’t much more I’m searching for from him though I think the more he plays, the more people will agree he isn’t nearly the liability in coverage people make him out to be, even if it isn’t an area he excels in. His time to shine is when the pads come on and he can welcome some poor rookie to the NFL with a big hit in the hole. Always a good time…at least, for those watching.
Tyler Matakevich: I know most of Steelers Nation assumes he can’t get the job done. Whether you agree with them or not, the team feels differently, and I’m expecting Dirty Red to take the initial first-team reps for that inaugural practice. The biggest concern will be how he looks moving backwards. If he can match the #3, usually the tight end, vertically, if he can handle the RB one-on-one in space. If he can do that, he’ll stick. If not, Jon Bostic’s odds get a whole lot better.
And while it will be tougher for us to tell from an outside point of view, if he’s going to be the guy, he’s going to be the key communicator. Ryan Shazier wasn’t just a tremendous athlete but incredibly bright player so big shoes to fill there as well. Coaches have to trust him 100%.
Jon Bostic: For Bostic, it’s about showing comfort in this defense. It’s a different scheme than what he’s played in for most of his career, the Tony Dungy Tampa 2 in Indy and Chicago. He’s not going to get those first-team reps until he knows this defense inside and out. Post-snap, we have a good idea of what his skillset is. He was brought in as a cheap, three-down player who wore plenty of hats last season. I don’t think you’re going to see a big difference from last year to this year, good or bad. For him, the test will be above the neck and how quickly he digests everything. I think it’ll come pretty quickly.
L.J. Fort: One of the forgotten men on the Steelers roster but a guy who got a raw deal last year. Despite Mike Tomlin’s self-proclaimed “next man up” mentality, the team looked at every other option before turning to Fort. They played Arthur Moats at ILB (bad results) and signed Sean Spence (worst results) before finally relenting and giving Fort sub-package work late in the season.
Fort is arguably the best athlete from last years roster, Matthew Thomas could challenge for that title, it’s a wonder why he can’t get a better look at the Mack spot where you need to be a quality athlete. For now, it looks like Fort is stuck in his usual special teams role, where his pass rush background helps him out. I hope he sticks around and think it’s a mistake to leave him off the roster.
Matthew Thomas: Thomas generated plenty of buzz as perhaps the team’s biggest “name” as a UDFA. A very poor man’s Shazier, Thomas is a capable sideline-to-sideline who can make enough splash plays to justify all the negative ones. His college game makes me feel he has trouble processing and in the NFL, if the mental game slows you down, you’ll never play to your physical tools. So that’s where it starts for him. He has to be able to ready his keys, not get fooled by all the window-dressing and not making the same mistakes in practice reps. That’s how you annoy the heck out of your coaches and get put on the bench, like Howard Jones was years ago before finding mild success in Tampa Bay.
I bet Thomas will make a couple nice plays during the preseason. But he has to weed out all the ugly ones too.
Keith Kelsey: Kelsey hung out on the practice squad for a solid chunk of the 2017 season. Here’s what I wrote about Kelsey last season out of camp.
“Similar story to Galambos. Two things stick out to me that set him apart. A better athlete and better tackling technique. Near leg/near shoulder principles that create power on contact. If you made me choose today, I’d give Kelsey the nod over Galambos on the practice squad but as noted, the snap count Galambos got against the Falcons is hard to ignore.”
Galambos is still around too after getting hurt last season so they’re likely competing for maybe one practice spot spot. Or none if Thomas lands there and they keep just one guy there. I’m expecting more of the same, someone who plays ok, not spectacularly, but processes a little bit faster with his rookie year behind him.
Matt Galambos: Kelsey and Galambos feel joined at the hip. Like I wrote above, I felt Kelsey was a little more athletic, a better tackler, but not significantly so. I’ve floated the idea of moving him to fullback; after all, the team only has Roosevelt Nix on the roster and moving a LB to fullback is relatively common (Nix, for a brief time, was an ILB in Pittsburgh) but I have no idea if that’ll actually happen or not. But if you go through a depth chart, you have three teams with an odd man out. So on days where everyone is healthy, that man is going to have trouble seeing reps.