The Pittsburgh Steelers went into the offseason needing to add reliable depth behind OLBs T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, having dealt with the ramifications of not having quality depth last season when Watt went down with a pec injury in Week 1. The initial wave of free agency came and went, and no notable edge rusher was added to the roster. Given the depth in the draft, it was expected that Pittsburgh would draft an OLB at some point, and they did by selecting LB Nick Herbig. Still, Herbig is seen as a tweener who may get kicked inside due to lack of ideal size and length, thus making the need to acquire a proven veteran a priority for Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh filled that need by signing former Arizona Cardinals EDGE Markus Golden Wednesday, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. Golden is 32 years old and has been an effective pass rusher since getting drafted by Arizona in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft. He started 68 games during his time with the Cardinals and Giants and has amassed 323 total tackles, 62 TFLs, 47 sacks, 11 forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries, and seven PBUs. He has three double digit sack seasons under his belt and finished 2022 with 48 tackles and 2.5 sacks.
So, what are the Steelers getting in Markus Golden? Let’s dive into the tape and break down his game.
Listed at 6’3, 260lbs, Golden is a stout edge defender for his size, carrying notable bulk on his compact frame. He plays with his hair on fire, providing relentless backside pursuit. You can see that in the clips against the Seahawks and Broncos below, with Golden chasing down the runner from the far side of the field to make the tackle.
Golden does a good job setting the edge against the run as he quickly shoots his hands and attacks the shoulder of the OT to keep outside contain. His size allows him to work around bigger, taller OTs like you can see in this rep against Charles Cross of the Seahawks. Setting the edge, he works back inside around Cross to get in on the tackle.
When it comes to taking on TEs at the LOS as a run defender, Golden can more than hold his own thanks to his physicality and play strength. Watch this rep against Seattle where TE Noah Fant comes across the LOS on the snap. He fails to cut Golden, who grabs Fant and chucks him to the side like a rag doll to shed the block and make the tackle on Kenneth Walker III.
A negative that sticks out in Golden’s game is his lack of ideal size and length, much like Nick Herbig, when it comes to playing the run and rushing the passer. Golden only has 31 1/8” arms, meaning that OTs often establish first contact on him at the LOS and can neutralize his rush and keep him from getting to their frames. Here is a good example of Billy Turner of the Broncos using his superior length and size to toss around Golden. Turner gets his arms out before Golden can get to Turner’s torso and he keeps Golden from getting in on the play.
Posting a 4.9 40 at the NFL Combine back in 2015, Golden isn’t necessarily the fastest or most explosive edge defender in the league. His pursuit is great, but his long speed is suspect. That leads to him getting outrun to the corner on occasions like on this rep against the Broncos where he can’t cut off the runner from getting outside.
Golden isn’t the biggest edge rusher in terms of size and length, but he does stand 6’3, 260lb so he isn’t small by any standard. To make up for a lack of arm length as a pass rusher attempting to get around the edge, you will see Golden use a two-hand swipe move to knock down the blocker’s hands. Watch this rep against Denver. Golden swipes the LT’s hands and then rips through his outside shoulder. Rounding the corner into the pocket, he drops the QB for the sack.
Golden will also use his size to win the leverage game against bigger, longer OTs that he faces. Watch this rep against Billy Turner where Turner grabs at Golden’s face mask on his initial punch. Golden gets into Turner’s chest and gets him off-balance. Working through the block to the QB, he wraps up the passer, who gets rid of the ball on a dump off pass to the RB.
He is well-utilized on twists and stunts up front with the DL, giving him an inside track to the QB where he can win thanks to his effort in pursuit. Watch this sack Golden picks up on Geno Smith. He loops inside, getting around the outside shoulder of the guard and takes down Smith in the backfield for the sack.
While Golden has some nuance to his game as a pass rusher, most of his pressures and sacks come on second- and third-effort rushes. A lot of the sacks Golden has made the last couple of years are “effort sacks” where the coverage holds up and Golden is able to track down the passer after rushing for over three seconds. Here are a couple of examples of Golden getting to the QB thanks to his effort and not quitting on the rep.
Golden’s lack of length not only affects his ability to get off blocks but also his ability to reach around blockers and bring ball carriers down to the ground. He tends to roll ball carriers to the ground or try and pull them down to the ground. As you see in the clip below, he is unable to complete the sack on Smith, who breaks free of the arm tackle and gets rid of the football.
When watching his tape, I saw Golden slip at the top of his rush multiple times, losing his footing as he trying to turn the corner or make a move on the OT. Here is just one example of the several littered in his game versus Seattle. He loses his footing as he engages the RT and QB Geno Smith evades pressure and scrambles for positive yardage.
Markus Golden is the ideal player you want as OLB3 in Pittsburgh. He comes in with plenty of veteran experience and has produced at a high level multiple times for different teams. Golden has played on both sides of the football and can line up in a standup position as well as with his hand in the dirt. He is a stout run defender who has shown the ability to get to the QB thanks to his effort in pursuit as well as his ability to out leverage his competition. He is a strong defender who can step in a moment’s notice for either T.J. Watt or Alex Highsmith if one were to go down or provide competent production as a rotational player to give either starter a breather.
He isn’t the best athlete and lacks the length and technicality as a pass rusher to be a consistently effective presence off the edge. However, Golden should be able to help solidify the OLB room and lead by example on the field while mentoring young guys who have a similar body type, like Nick Herbig, off it.