The Pittsburgh Steelers did a lot of spring cleaning at the inside linebacker position in the offseason, letting the likes of Robert Spillane and Devin Bush walk in free agency and cutting Myles Jack, while adding Elandon Roberts and Cole Holcomb on the open market.
Despite a new-look linebacker room featuring guys that better fit what the franchise is looking for, the group remains one of the league’s weakest position groups ahead of the 2023 NFL Draft, at least according to Pro Football Focus’ Zoltan Buday.
Along with the Tennessee Titans’ offensive line, the Indianapolis Colts’ quarterbacks and the Houston Texans’ wide receivers, the Steelers’ linebacker room was highlighted as one of the weakest position groups in the league. That shouldn’t be all that surprising considering the Steelers have just Roberts, Holcomb, 2022 seventh-round draft pick Mark Robinson, waiver wire claim Tae Crowder and practice squad member Chappelle Russell at the position on the roster.
“The Steelers were seemingly unhappy with their linebacker performance in 2022, as they released Myles Jack while letting free agents Devin Bush and Robert Spillane walk in free agency. However, it is debatable whether they have managed to upgrade the position over the last month,” Buday writes regarding the Steelers’ remade linebacker room. “Pittsburgh brought in free agents Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts to replace its departed linebackers. Holcomb, a former fifth-round pick, had a promising sophomore campaign but has failed to live up to that potential in his two seasons since, as he missed more than half of the 2022 season and has yet to play more than 800 snaps in a season. Roberts, on the other hand, played mostly a situational role at his previous stops, as he never played more than 700 snaps in a season and earned an overall grade over 60.0 just once since his rookie season in 2016.”
In his career, Roberts has recorded 456 tackles, 39 tackles for loss, 11.0 sacks, four forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, one interception and 10 passes defensed. He’s much better working downhill than dropping into coverage. According to Pro Football Reference, Roberts has allowed 87 receptions (113 targets) for 941 yards and six touchdowns in his six-year career. Quarterbacks have a rating of 108.8 when targeting him.
Those numbers aren’t pretty, but Roberts was signed with one thing in mind: getting downhill against the run and setting the physical tone for a defense that needs that element at the linebacker position once again.
He’s also a factor as a blitzer, which the Steelers have truly been missing at inside linebacker since Vince Williams was patrolling the middle of the field for the Black and Gold.
Stylistically and on paper, Roberts is a really good fit for the Steelers. He’ll come off the field in obvious passing situations but will be a two-down linebacker with some high-end special-teams abilities as well. For the price the Steelers paid, it’s a very sound investment at a serious position of need.
As for Holcomb, he struggled with injuries in 2022, playing in just seven games. He recorded 69 tackles, one tackle for loss, one quarterback hit, and one pass defensed in those seven games for the Commanders.
Holcomb had a breakout season in Washington in 2021, totaling 142 tackles, two tackles for loss, two quarterback hits, one sack, two interceptions (one returned for a touchdown), seven passes defensed, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. He started all 16 games for the Commanders that season.
In four seasons, Holcomb has seen action in 50 games, starting 48.
In just 446 snaps in 2022, Holcomb graded out at 66.6 overall in Pro Football Focus’ metrics, including a 69.4 against the run and a 67.0 in coverage. Holcomb played in 1,021 snaps for the Commanders in 2021, grading out at a 56.7 overall. For his career, Holcomb has played 2,740 snaps defensively.
He’s struggled in coverage, according to Pro Football Reference, allowing 135 receptions on 180 targets for 1,205 yards and eight touchdowns with a passer rating of 100.35 over the four years.
In the tackling department, Holcomb has missed 37 tackles in four seasons, per PFR, but has seen his missed tackles percentage decline each season, including a mark of just 5.5% in 2022.
On paper, the projected starting duo of Holcomb and Roberts looks a bit better than the duo of Jack and Bush in 2022, at least based on what the previous starting duo showed down the stretch last season. The loss of Spillane does sting as he was playing good football late and was a key piece defensively in the final month of the season.
But the Steelers were very clearly unhappy with the play they received out of the inside linebackers in 2022 and have completed reshaped the room ahead of the 2023 season. It might be weak now, at least on paper, but the Steelers will almost certainly draft an inside linebacker in the early rounds in this month’s NFL Draft and should get better play out of the pair they added in free agency this year — at least compared to the group from last season.