For a late-round draft pick like Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ulysees Gilbert III (#5), the path to a roster spot is often through special teams play. It takes special players to become a special teams demon. The concept seems quite easy when covering kicks. Run 40+ yards down field and make the tackle. However, when you look at it closely it’s a bit more complex.
It starts with speed, covering a lot of ground in a short period of time. Next, you need to understand blocking schemes and know how to avoid blockers without losing your lane. You need to take good angles and good timing to breakdown when necessary. And finally be able to finish the play and make the tackle. It may be one on one in space, with a blocker hanging on you or sometimes in close quarters against a player also running at top speed with the agility to make you miss.
I took a look at some of Gilbert’s work on special teams and on defense in his collegiate career to see what he can bring to the kick coverage area of the game.
At Penn State on punt coverage, Gilbert is lined up to the right of the long snapper. Gets a clean release and is the first man down the field. He does a solid job to throttle down but allows the returner to the inside. He’s able to recover, however, and get in on the tackle.
Also against Penn State, he gets a good release and is able to toss aside a blocker and he is the second player with a chance at the returner. The returner gets slowed by the first defender. Gilbert over pursues to the inside allowing the punter a lane around him that ends up as a TD.
At Wisconsin on kick coverage he is in the L5 position to the left of the kicker. He does a good job to break down and stays to the inside of the runner. He avoids the block of the up back and swings down the returner
At Wisconsin covering a kick after a safety. He works his way across the field avoiding a blocker at the 45. He’s under control and mirrors the returner to make the tackle.
Obviously, the key is to finish the play, to get the ball carrier down on special teams or on defense. Gilbert was productive in college tallying 357 tackles but he left some makeable plays out there.
At Penn State, he’s coming off the edge on the right and seemingly has the QB in a small area but when he flattens out the QB is able to side step him
At Penn State, this time from the left edge, it’s a similar situation for Gilbert. He balanced and has the QB in a one-on-one situation and he barely gets his right hand on him.
Vs Florida Atlantic Gilbert comes clean through the B gap past the right guard and runs past the QB.
Vs Western Michigan, there is a lot of good in this play. He’ll come from the right edge and twist inside executing a beautiful dip under the left guard. He gets side stepped by the QB losing out on the sack. True to his style though he doesn’t give up on the play chasing the QB across the field.
Finishing the play is the goal whether it’s on defense or special teams. This is a small sample and from these examples it seems Gilbert’s aggressiveness gets him far enough out of position at times that it costs him the chance to make the play. That’s not something you want to take away from him so it seems he may need to play a little more under control when he’s near the ball.
The physical ability is there for Gilbert. He has 4.46 speed and has shown the ability to make plays. He has shown the ability to put himself in position to make big plays and he will need to capitalize on those chances when he gets them in camp. To earn a spot on the roster he’s going to have to finish plays.