New Pittsburgh Steelers ILB Cole Holcomb spoke to the media on Thursday for the first time since reports of Holcomb’s intention to sign with Pittsburgh broke back on March 15. Holcomb signed a three-year deal worth $18 million, locking him in as the team’s projected starting ILB and likely the team’s every-down LB in the middle of the defense.
Holcomb was asked Thursday about his coverage ability and how would be able to hold up if asked to cover slot receivers and tight ends. Covering from the LB position is nothing new for him, Holcomb said, after starting 48 games for the Commanders over the last four seasons.
“I’ve been in plenty of positions like that,” Holcomb said on 93.7 The Fan. “Playing at Washington, there were times where I was covering Quez Watkins. Playing at MIKE… they like attacking that MIKE. And again, that three by one, they put that slot receiver there and let him run his little option route. So, I’ve had plenty of experience doing that. I’ve had playing experience playing on two, playing a lot of man on tight ends. Like I said, my time at Washington… I’ve gone against everything. I’ve seen everything in terms of being in a mismatch and how to handle those situations.”
When looking Holcomb’s statistics in coverage, it isn’t very promising. According to Pro Football Reference, Holcomb has allowed 135 receptions on 180 targets for 1,205 yards and eight touchdowns with a passer rating of 100.35 over the last four years. Still, Holcomb has the athleticism (6’1, 240lb, 4.51 40, 4.14 short shuttle, 6.77 three cone, 11’0” broad) to represent himself well in coverage, as most ILBs tend to be at a disadvantage when covering slot WRs and TEs in man coverage.
As I mentioned in a film study I conducted on Holcomb, he can be slow to react to receivers breaking at the top of their routes. Like in the clip below against Michael Gallup in the red zone, Holcomb will have a tough time staying sticky in coverage past the initial two to three seconds should the pass rush fail to get home in this mismatch coverage situation.
However, Holcomb has the speed to carry slot receivers and TEs up the seam and run with them in coverage and is able to tackle at the catch or contest passes. We see the latter here against the Raiders and TE Foster Moreau from 2021. Holcomb runs with him toward the sideline and down the seam on two separate plays, putting himself in position to break up the pass.
Holcomb may not be Fred Warner-level as a coverage linebacker, but he’s arguably better than anything Pittsburgh has had the last couple of seasons. Slot receivers and tight ends may get the better of him from time-to-time if Holcomb is caught out of position, as is often the case with Pittsburgh’s defensive scheme putting linebackers on slot receivers on occasion. But he has experience doing it and has shown us over a large sample size that he will compete his butt off and make some plays in the passing game in Pittsburgh, similar to what he did in Washington.