As the offseason rolls on, I wanted to look at several position groups for the Steelers and how they may shake out concerning the initial regular season roster, specifically the ILB position. Normally, Pittsburgh likes to keep around nine linebackers in total on defense, with four being inside or on the edge and five being at the other spot depending on depth, talent, special teams’ ability, etc. Last season, Pittsburgh only kept four ILBs and OLBs, respectively. However, Marcus Allen was listed as a safety then as well, essentially serving as that fifth inside linebacker for depth purposes.
Now given the lack of notable depth behind starters T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith at OLB, Pittsburgh could be expected to keep just Cassius Marsh and Quincy Roche for four at the EDGE unless they sign a free agent prior to the season. While this could be expected, this may push the likes of Marsh off the roster rather than drop the ILB number to four. This would mean there would be one more spot available behind Devin Bush, Vince Williams, Robert Spillane, and rookie Buddy Johnson.
While Allen is making the transition from safety to linebacker, he essentially played a linebacker role back to his days at Penn State, lining up in the box or detached from the LOS in a dime backer role to be more of a matchup against backs and TEs. He isn’t the best mover in space and moving backwards in coverage, hence why linebacker has seemed like more of a natural fit given his skillset. When he is coming downhill, he plays with good pursuit to the football to make a play. Watch this play he makes on #30 Austin Ekeler catching the ball in the flat in his first game appearance, reading the pass and getting enough of Ekeler to trip him up right at the line for minimal gain.
Here is another example, while from the safety position, of Allen coming on the dump off pass to the back in the flat on the left side, showing good pursuit and angle to the football as he brings down the ball carrier short of the line to gain.
While not the most fluid mover in coverage when playing as a split zone safety or as a center fielder, Allen is a capable zone dropper from the LB spot that has good length to minimize passing lanes and contest passes. Here we see him against the Jaguars drop to the right middle third of the field to occupy the short and intermediate zone coverage, being in good position as the defense rallies to the QB for the sack.
Despite being more of a long, slender build for the safety position, Allen isn’t afraid of getting his nose dirty in run support. He throws his body in there against offensive linemen, like we see here on this play against #75 Joel Bitonio, cutting under the guard’s legs to slow down #27 Kareem Hunt and causing him to stumble, resulting in the rest of the defense rallying and bringing him down.
However, while we have seen Allen embrace the move inside and add necessary muscle mass for the rigors of the position, he still lacks ideal power or quickness to evade blocks, and can cede ground. Here against the Bengals, we see Allen take on the TE on the stretch run to the right but can’t work through the block to get through the TE’s outside shoulder, giving up ground and allowing #25 Giovanni Bernard to gain extra yardage. He does a good job to make the tackle at the end of the play and shows get effort, but the lack of play strength is a concern in terms of getting washed against the run.
Ulysees Gilbert III (UG3 for short) is an interesting evaluation due to his physical tools as an athletic defender who can run sideline-to-sideline and is capable of running with backs and TEs in coverage. Injuries have plagued his first two seasons in the league. He played in seven games as a rookie in 2019, logging 150 snaps on special teams, but suffered a back injury that sent him to IR in November. He then played in four games in 2020 as a reserve, logging 33 defensive snaps and 46 snaps on special teams before suffering another back injury in October, being placed on short-term IR where he remained until Pittsburgh’s game against the Buffalo Bills. Alas, he was placed back on IR for the rest of the season after sustaining an ankle injury Week 15 vs the Bengals, ending a disappointing season before it ever really got going.
When he’s been healthy, Gilbert III has looked like a quality depth piece on defense with room to grow into a larger role. He has the athletic upside Allen doesn’t, reportedly running in the 4.4s, compared to Allen who is more in the 4.6 range. The speed shows up in Gilbert’s play, too, as you can see the burst and acceleration on this chase down tackle against the Buccaneers in the preseason last year.
His speed and pursuit are also beneficial when tasked when being sent on the blitz, shooting gaps and blowing past blocks to make a play against the run or when pressuring the QB like we see on this rep. Here he shoots the B-gap and gets through the block by the RG with his speed and bend, being able to redirect and chase down the passer from behind for the sack-forced fumble combo.
While not the most instinctual defender in coverage coming out of Akron, Gilbert III has shown promise in this area as well in his limited play time. Again, he is an athletic, rangy athlete with the speed and movement skills to run with backs and TEs in coverage, regardless where they line up. Here is an impressive play in the same game where Gilbert lines up on the boundary near the left sideline on the RB. He recognizes the quick slant and works to get inside leverage to challenge the pass, ultimately stepping right in front of the intended receiver for the INT which he has the wherewithal to get up and pick up extra yardage after the heads-up play.
Now if either Allen or Gilbert III make the roster, they likely will have to be core special teams players. Allen has done such over his first few seasons, and Gilbert has experience there, as well. Gilbert had a heck of a showing in the 2019 preseason to get himself a roster spot, including this blocked field goal attempt against the Panthers in the preseason finale to cement his status on the roster.
Based on the traits and playmaking ability, I personally lean toward keeping Gilbert III over Allen given his youth and upside. However, the back injuries he has dealt with the past two seasons will need to be a thing of the past for him to have the shot of claiming a roster spot over Allen, who may not have the same upside as Gilbert III, but has been reliable and can fill the role at ILB or dime backer if called upon. Training camp and the preseason games will go a long way in deciding who sticks on the roster for 2021, but should Gilbert prove to be healthy, I personally would love to see what he can do as a special teams demon and a young, athletic reserve on the inside.