Considering that the Pittsburgh Steelers have never spent more in outside free agency than this offseason with the signings, in particular, of cornerback Steven Nelson and inside linebacker Mark Barron, their progress of integrating themselves into the defense has gone relatively unheralded.
In Barron’s case, a lot of that has to do with his being overshadowed by 10th-overall pick Devin Bush, who was drafted over a month after the former was originally signed. But he’s shown this offseason that he clearly will play this year, too.
With both Bush and Vince Williams sitting out the second preseason with minor nicks, we were able to get a pretty long and quality look at Barron playing the first handful of series, every snap, with the first-team defense. He spent a lot of that time in coverage, as on this second defensive play of the game, covering running back Damien Williams into the flat after motioning into the slot.
Arguably his best play of the game arrived just a few plays later with the Kansas City Chiefs facing a third down on their opening drive. This time, Williams ran a wheel route out of the backfield, and the safety-turned-linebacker showed his athleticism in carrying the back up the seam for an incompletion.
The Steelers are making it pretty clear that they are comfortable with Barron lining up wherever they need him to be. Based on preseason work to date, that might include a lot of snaps covering the slot, though they could also be a biased sample size relative to their first two opponents.
Here, though, he works against tight end Deon Yelder well, showing the hip fluidity and footwork needed to thrive in coverage against today’s ends and running backs. As he got five yards down the field, he was able to get underneath Yelder and cut off any throw in front with the safety clamping down over the top.
Two plays later, on another third down, he drew the man-to-man coverage against Carlos Hyde coming out of the backfield. He stumbled a bit initially but was able to keep with the back, taking away the quick passing lane, which helped the pass rush break through for a sack, recorded by Bud Dupree against Chad Henne.
At this point in the process, I’m pretty confident in stating that the Steelers are going to find opportunities for all three of their inside linebackers to play, but the playing time of the others may hinge on Bush. If they think he can handle buck-like run responsibilities, we may see Barron on the field with him more than we see him with Williams.