Film Room: LB Cole Holcomb Brings More Athleticism To Pittsburgh As Robert Spillane Replacement

Losing Robert Spillane to the Las Vegas Raiders, left Pittsburgh’s ILB room pretty bare. Devin Bush and Marcus Allen remain on the open market, and with Myles Jack, Mark Robinson, and Tae Crowder the only notable names currently on the roster, the Steelers desperately needed to add another competent player to the room.

They did just that after agreeing with veteran free agent linebacker Cole Holcomb on a three-year deal, according to NFL Network insider Tom Pelissero. The financial teams of the deal have not yet been disclosed but considering Holcomb’s experience with the Washington Commanders and the length of the deal, it’s safe to assume that Pittsburgh signed Holcomb with the intention of starting him alongside Myles Jack at off-ball linebacker.

The Commanders selected Holcomb in the fifth round of the 2019 NFL Draft out of North Carolina, and he started 15 games as a rookie. In four seasons, Holcomb has started 48 of 50 games played and has racked up 388 total tackles (239 solo), 15 TFLs, 4.5 sacks, three INTs (one returned for a TD), 10 PBUs, five forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery. For his career, Holcomb has played 2,740 snaps defensively but hasn’t recorded a special teams snap the last two years after playing over 50% of the snaps as a rookie.

At first glance, Holcomb appears to slot in right next to Myles Jack at LB thanks to his experience, production, and overall athletic profile (6’1, 240lb, 4.51 40, 4.14 short shuttle, 6.77 three cone, 11’0” broad). What type of player are the Pittsburgh Steelers getting in Holcomb? Let’s find out.

Run Defense

Holcomb has a nose for the football as a run defender, having racked up 142 total tackles in 2021, good for 10th in the NFL. He had 69 total stops in 2022, playing only seven games before missing the rest of the season with a foot injury. When watching Holcomb, you see a player that can come downhill and fill gaps as well as use his speed to work sideline to sideline to cut off runners attempting to get the edge. Here is a three-play sequence against the Titans last season, when Holcomb had an 86.1 run-defense grade, stuffing RB Derrick Henry on all three runs.

One thing that Holcomb brings to the table that Robert Spillane didn’t have is that open-field speed to provide sideline pursuit to the defense. Holcomb is a good athlete, which is evident in his athletic testing as well as his tape. Watch this play Holcomb makes against Chicago. Holcomb works off the block by the LG and works laterally down the LOS as he tracks down RB David Montgomery and escorts him out of bounds.

Holcomb, a team captain for the Commanders, wore the green dot for the defense, profiling as the MACK LB. He has the instincts for the job, going through his reads and quickly processing what is happening in the moment. Watch this play where Holcomb makes a big fourth-down stop. Backed up against his own goal line, Holcomb gets into the gap and stuffs the runner before he can cross the plane, forcing a turnover on downs.

When Holcomb plays square to the LOS and gets a good punch inside the blocker’s chest, he can stack and shed blocks against the run and make plays on the football. We see that on this play against Philadelphia where Holcomb keeps his arms extended against C Jason Kelce as Kelce climbs to the second level to pick him up. Holcomb keeps his outside leg and arm free to get off the block and make the tackle.

Holcomb can struggle when going against pure size and power against the run due to lack of arm length (31 3/8”) and pure strength at the point of attack. We see a good example of Holcomb getting engulfed by sheer size and strength on this rep against the Eagles in which G Isaac Seumalo who comes off a combos block and bullies Holcomb in the second level.


Pass Coverage

As Josh Carney laid out in his piece highlighting the signing of Holcomb, he’s struggled in coverage based on the analytics. 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 four years. When watching the tape, he can play more instinctively in zone coverage when receivers cross into his vicinity, like on this play where WR A.J. Brown catches the drag route near the LOS. Holcomb is slow to react to Brown running underneath and pursues him after the catch. But he overruns the play as he fails to break down, allowing Brown to cut back and pick up additional yardage.

Here is a similar play from the same game where Jalen Hurts throws the pass to Dallas Goedert in the flat. Holcomb is quicker to see the pass and tackles Goedert shortly after the catch for a minimal gain.

When in position, Holcomb can make plays against the pass, having three INTs and ten PBUs during his career. On this pass to Goedert underneath on the curl route, Holcomb is in good position. He plays through the hands of Goedert, who attempts to box him out, knocking the ball away from his hands for the pass breakup.

Pure athleticism at linebacker doesn’t always correlate to being good in coverage (i.e. Devin Bush). It does help in being able to cover ground and be in position to contest passes. On this play a couple years ago against Dallas, we see Holcomb read the play-action pass on the boot rollout, getting on his horse to get in-front of TE Dalton Shultz. He steps in-front of the Dak Prescott pass to Shultz, picking it off the pass and taking it back to the house.



Cole Holcomb has blitzed 135 times in his NFL career, according to Pro Football Reference, and has proven to be effective in this area. His speed and aggressiveness in pursuit help him close ground quickly on the passer, forcing the hurry or taking him down to the ground. Here is an example of the latter. Holcomb comes on the blitz up the middle against Dallas, running right through RB Ezekiel Elliott’s face and takes down QB Andy Dalton by the legs for a third-down sack.

Holcomb isn’t a skilled pass rusher when it comes to bend and hand usage, often relying on twists and stunts to get him in position to make plays. Watch this rep against Chicago last season. Holcomb loops around the LOS and gets to QB Justin Fields in the pocket but is unable to wrap him and bring him down, allowing Fields to take off for a big run.


Cole Holcomb is a capable linebacker who can stabilize the unit and play beside Myles Jack in Pittsburgh’s base defense. While neither are particularly skilled coverage defenders, I wouldn’t be surprised if Holcomb becomes the team’s three-down linebacker and stays on the field in pass-coverage situations. It also wouldn’t surprise me if Holcomb becomes that green dot player, as he was in Washington, unless Jack is fully healthy and Pittsburgh wants to go back to him with those duties in 2023.

Holcomb has limited upside and has issues that include fending off bigger blockers and leaving his feet as a tackler. But I would categorize this as an upgrade over Robert Spillane. Spillane had his struggles in coverage as well and gave Pittsburgh less juice at ILB compared to what Holcomb provides. For a defense that needs more speed to the ball, Holcomb can be seen as an upgrade in that respect and should provide a little more splash in his play than what Spillane or Bush provided.

This shouldn’t preclude Pittsburgh from addressing ILB in the draft. The Steelers should target one of the top names with one of their first three picks, should the value be there. Still, Holcomb is just 26 years old, (27 in July), and helps fill an immediate need on the roster as someone with proven production and experience who can play all three downs.

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