The Pittsburgh Steelers seemed to take a bit of time before recognizing the urgency with which they needed to address the dearth of talent and depth at the inside linebacker position in the wake of Ryan Shazier’s career-ending injury late in the 2017 season. At the time, he was playing at an All-Pro level and almost single-handedly rebuilding the defense into a competent unit.
The poor level of play from the position following his injury was marked and evident, however, and that resulted in the team going out and signing Mark Barron in free agency in 2019, then following it up by moving up in the first round of the draft to get Devin Bush, who racked up over 100 tackles with six takeaways as a rookie.
While Bush remains, Barron was let go as a salary cap casualty, moving Vince Williams back into the starting lineup on a full-time basis, rather than as depth. Also departing in free agency was Tyler Matakevich, their most experienced backup, leaving the Steelers with just two young second-year backups with no defensive experience. And they didn’t use any of their resources this offseason to address the shortfall.
Part of that was because they have faith in the rise of their new young players, no matter their pedigree. That is especially the case for Ulysees Gilbert III, a sixth-round pick out of Akron a year ago. While he did not play a defensive snap during the regular season, he did impress in the preseason, and was active on special teams.
“Ulysees is looking great. I think he has made tremendous strides”, Williams recently told reporters about his young understudy a couple of days ago. On his efforts to grow amid a stunted offseason, he said, “it just steepens the learning curve, but I am confident they will figure it out. A lot of these guys are really bright. They are really into football. I think that everything else being shut down outside of this is presented to be a unique opportunity that all they have to do is focus at this point. I think that is going to help lessen the steep curve that it would be”.
The only other inside linebacker on the roster who is not a rookie college free agent is Robert Spillane, who spent half of the 2019 season on the practice squad before being called up to replace Gilbert after he was put on injured reserve with an injury.
After spending time with the Titans as an undrafted rookie in 2018, he joined the Steelers the following offseason. He also made some noteworthy plays in the preseason, which earned him that practice squad spot that ultimately led to his carving out a special teams niche during the second half of the regular season. Now those two make up the as-of-now only meaningful reserves behind Bush and Bince.