While the Pittsburgh Steelers winning a game is nice and all, the real highlight of yesterday’s game is the fact that head coach Mike Tomlin successfully managed to dress all of the allotted 48 players for the game, after mistakenly dressing one fewer player than permitted during the season opener a week ago.
Under the new rules as part of the 2020 Collective Bargaining Agreement, players may now dress 47 players, up from 46, plus an additional offensive lineman if at least seven are already included in the 47, for a total of 48. For the first time ever, the Steelers had just five players on the bench yesterday afternoon.
But, for the second game in a row, one of them was Ulysees Gilbert III. For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, after he dressed for all seven games as a rookie a year ago in which he was healthy, the second-year former sixth-round pick now appears to be a healthy scratch in spite of the fact that the Steelers lost two players from his position of inside linebacker.
The problem? For starters, after he was lost for the season due to a back injury, he was replaced by Robert Spillane, who immediately came on and made an impact. He had 11 tackles in special teams despite playing in just eight games.
With Spillane now the new Tyler Matakevich on special teams and Marcus Allen offering more versatility as what the team is evidently viewing as a hybrid safety/linebacker, Gilbert has been getting the short shrift.
Even rookie undrafted free agent cornerback James Pierre has been dressing over Gilbert, who played 150 snaps on special teams during his seven games as a rookie and did manage five special teams tackles, which makes his inactive status difficult to explain.
Perhaps the most likely explanation is simply that special teams coordinator Danny Smith simply felt that players like Spillane, Pierre, Chase Claypool, Alex Highsmith, Justin Layne, and Allen offered more during the team’s special teams drills in what little work they got in training camp.
Heading into the season, many believed that Gilbert would not only dress but would become a mainstay, serving as the number three linebacker and the top backup, and even rotating in and out with Vince Williams, perhaps as a preview of moving into a starting job as early as 2021.
At least for the time being, however, his place in 2020 appears to be on the bench, alongside Joshua Dobbs, Carlos Davis, and Zach Gentry (plus whoever the ninth offensive lineman will be any given week; currently David DeCastro while injured, but Derwin Gray while healthy, and then J.C. Hassenauer when Stefen Wisniewski returns).
Barring health, how else can this evolve? How is Gilbert going to see the field at all this year unless there is an injury? Or is there some sort of reason behind the scenes we’re not aware of for his inactive status? Or perhaps he simply didn’t look as promising in training camp as he did a year ago?