Due in part to the fact that the Pittsburgh Steelers ended up coming out of the 2018 NFL Draft emptyhanded at the inside linebacker position, rookie college free agent Matthew Thomas has emerged as one of the players that fans have been most excited to see.
A young, talented, and athletic linebacker out of Florida State, Thomas saw his draft stock tumble far enough to fall out of the draft due in large part to things that occurred outside of the field, but the Steelers were willing to give him an opportunity as a free agent.
They reportedly wanted to get a long look at him during the spring, and he has received plenty of opportunities to play so far during training camp. He ran quite a bit in the second half of the Steelers’ preseason opener on Thursday against he Eagles as well, and he showed some positive indications that will give him a chance to make the roster.
Late in the third quarter, for example, he helped the defense record a key run stop on third and three. While this was not the most physically nor mentally demanding play of the day for him, it’s noteworthy how quickly he slides down to where the ball is going to be. He got outmuscled initially at the contact point, but finished the play.
Into the fourth quarter, about halfway through, the Eagles were facing another third and intermediate play on which they chose to run the ball rather than put the ball in the air. It was third and four, and on this occasion, Thomas showed his vision and awareness to track where the ball was going through traffic while keeping himself clean. Lavon Hooks was credited with the tackle, but he was right there.
Late in the game, as the Steelers were looking to close out the game while holding onto a substantial lead, they actually used the inside linebacker extensively as a pass rusher, often even sending him off the edge. On one example with about three and a half minutes to go, he was able to dip under the right tackle and nearly recorded a sack if not for the quarterback narrowly getting the ball out.
He came off the edge again later on the same drive, once again chasing the right tackle up the arc before slamming on the brakes and flushing the quarterback out, but he was still able to readjust and find a target to convert a third and five.
That’s nothing to take away from what Thomas did on that play, however, or the others looked at above. Obviously this post is intended to point out some of his highlights (on the final defensive play of the game, he also showed strong attributes in coverage), but the point is to show what there is to work with here.