There’s no doubt the Pittsburgh Steelers keeping only three outside linebackers, arguably the most important position in their 3-4 defense, is unusual. Ola Adeniyi landing on IR leaves the team with just T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, and Anthony Chickillo.
But there’s another name who could throw his hat into the edge rusher ring: UDFA sensation Matthew Thomas. Listed as an inside linebacker, the Steelers like his pass rush ability. In a pinch, or for some sub-package football, Thomas could play on the outside.
He wouldn’t be the first Seminole to do so. Remember back to Lawrence Timmons, part of Mike Tomlin’s inaugural class, an inside/outside candidate early on in his career. He ended his Steelers career with 35.5 QB takedowns, still top ten in franchise history since sacks became an official stat.
We don’t have to theorize about the team wanting to use Thomas there either. In training camp, with numbers at outside linebacker thin after Watt, Dupree, and Adeniyi missed time, Thomas kicked outside and played on the edge. He admitted the Steelers liked what he could do as a pass rusher.
“I think (the coaching staff) knows I can pass rush a bit – they just don’t know the extent of it,” Thomas told the Trib’s Chris Adamski during camp. “So they tried me at it a little bit. Today the numbers (at outside linebacker) were down on the outside… I guess they want to see how I rush against some of the tackles that we got.”
And he’s plenty confident in his own ability to get home.
“I definitely think I could,” he told Adamski. “Coach had mentioned something to me about third-down packages, if that was to be my role or whatever to see how I could do as far as rushing the passer and just take steps forward to that (in case) it came to that.”
Even though it came against lesser competition, Thomas flashed those edge rushing skills in the preseason finale against Carolina, whipping the Panthers’ right tackle on his way to a strip sack fumble that put the cherry on top of a stellar preseason.
Twelve times in the preseason opener, Thomas lined up along the edge. In total this preseason, he did it on 17 snaps. Not a huge sample size but it’s enough to know the team’s interested.
Think about it like this. The Steelers probably view Thomas as the #3 inside linebacker, still behind Vince Williams and Jon Bostic, and its #4 outside linebacker. One guy, depth at two spots.
And of course, it’s nearly certain Thomas is going to have a role in some sort of sub-package football. The “Seminole” package shown in the third preseason game is named after him. Keith Butler loves to get his inside linebackers on the edge and vice versa, his edge rushers off ball. Thomas wouldn’t need to be “designated” as an outside linebacker or replace Dupree or Watt, two guys the team want to keep on the field. Snaps would come at the expense of either Bostic or Williams, whoever isn’t calling the defense. From there, Butler can get creative with the athletes he has along that front seven. There’s no ceiling to the looks he can run out and force offenses to spend time gameplanning for. Chaos is what you want to create – for the other team, at least.
As much as I would love to see a guy like John Simon brought in, it’s entirely possible the team will stand pat with their three, plus Adeniyi when he’s eligible to return mid-season. They have Matthew Thomas waiting in the wings. And it’s painfully obvious they’re dying to get him on the field.