The Pittsburgh Steelers released their first official depth chart yesterday. While unlike some organizations, head coach Mike Tomlin is the one who assembles them, the understanding has to be that positions and rankings are not set in stone. After all, he does include the word ‘OR’ several times throughout the chart.
The most interesting thing that struck me, however, is the simple fact that he didn’t even list Marcus Allen among the safeties. He is listed solely as an inside linebacker, along with Ulysees Gilbert III behind Devin Bush at the mack, with Robert Spillane listed behind Vince Williams.
What does this mean, and how much should we read into it? Is he truly a linebacker in their eyes? How much does this reflect the manner in which they intend to utilize him this season? Are they disregarding his role as a traditional safety from this point forward as he focuses on playing in the box?
With Sean Davis being brought back and predictably being listed as the top backup at both free and strong safety (having started 16-plus games at both positions), Jordan Dangerfield is the only other one behind the starters on the 53-man roster, but they also have Curtis Riley and Antoine Brooks on the practice squad.
The only inside linebackers on the roster have already been named in this article, and that includes Allen to bring the total to five—or perhaps four and a half. After the Steelers drafted Brooks, general manager Kevin Colbert described him as half a linebacker, half a safety.
Now that is Allen’s role, in so many words, and it’s a role that they’ve been trying to give him for years. He did play in the dime role in one game as a rookie due to injuries, and spent most of his time in the box. Heading into his second year, Tomlin specifically singled him out as a player who could develop into the dimebacker job.
In his third year, just weeks before the regular season, it appears he’s finally where the team wants him to be, even if that means they’ve moved the goalposts a bit. But they haven’t asked him to change anything. He confirmed a couple of weeks ago that he is still 215 pounds and that the team never asked him to bulk up.
When asked about working with Jerry Olsavsky and the linebackers about any advice he was given about how to counteract his size disadvantage, he said he was told by the veteran inside linebackers coach to use his speed.
The Steelers are not unversed in the safety-to-linebacker transition, having had Mark Barron in last year. “I think if he was five years younger, he might have been a linebacker”, Tomlin said about Barron after signing him. Also noting Thomas Davis, he added, “Over the course of their careers, they’re transitioning to all-situations linebackers because of an adaption, an adaptive element that’s part of this game”.
Now, Allen is a backup, even a backup to a backup, and there’s a reasonable chance he’s not even going to see the field. But either way, I just hope they know what they’re doing with the depth at this position, without even an inside linebacker on the practice squad. This is more a move about the dime defense than anything else, because unlike Barron, he will probably never transition into being a true linebacker.