If there was one clear priority over all others for the Pittsburgh Steelers this offseason, you could argue that it was improving the speed of the inside linebacking corps, which lagged behind the standards of the NFL today last season. Vince Williams is a prototypical buck from years past, and Jon Bostic did not live up to the athleticism now demanded from the mack.
So they started off by signing Mark Barron in free agency, a starter with a hybrid role who was originally drafted as a safety before moving to the second level a few years ago. They kept it going in the draft, jumping up in the first round to nab Devin Bush, the great athlete out of Michigan, and they went back in the sixth round for Ulysees Gilbert III out of Akron.
According to Tunch Ilkin and Craig Wolfley, the speed and athleticism of the new group has been really evident so far through the first two weeks of OTAs. “One of the things that has really jumped out at me is the speed of the defense. They are really flying to the ball”, Ilkin said in a report for the team’s website.
“You look at Devin Bush, the first-round pick from Michigan—what a stud athlete. And then Mark Barron, maybe even more athletic”, he went on, adding of Barron, “he is thicker than I thought he was. He is a lot bigger”. He also said of Gilbert that he is “a big fan” and that he “shows a lot of speed”.
Both Barron and Bush figure to play key roles on the defense this year, though Gilbert may have a difficult time on the roster if he doesn’t make himself indispensable on special teams. But they drafted him for a reason, and that is because he fit the profile of what they were looking for at the position.
Ilkin was excited about the group overall. “What I love is the athleticism, so when you play against someone like the Ram, you’ve got all that athleticism”, he said. But also, “you play against a two-tight running team, you bring back Vince Williams. So what I love about the Steelers’ linebacking corps right now is they’ve got the components they need”.
“They’ve got the athleticism, they’ve got the team speed, and they can shift to a power [defense]. You got the thumper, old school, Vinny”.
The Steelers have been using Williams, Barron, and Bush in all different combinations running with the first-team defense as they try to figure out which combinations work and in what contexts. They will have the next few months to sort it all out, but whatever combination they settle upon as their main group, it will represent an upgrade in team speed for sure.