“Quarterbacks should wear dresses.” -Jack Lambert
What a rich history of middle linebackers the Steelers have. From Jack Lambert to Ryan Shazier, the Steelers seemingly always have a really solid to great middle linebacker. Lawrence Timmons, James Farrior, Kendrell Bell, Ryan Shazier… the list goes on and on in recent history alone. It really feels like the Steelers have a stud calling the shots on defense almost every year. Last year, the Steelers had Vince Williams and he was the consistent solo. The rotation of LJ Fort, Jon Bostic, and Dirty Red didn’t bring the results and play making that they sought to replace after the loss of Shazier. Despite the latter three having solid moments in preseason and regular season play, they left much to be desired. This year, however, it seems like a completely polar opposite problem.
The Steelers not only made their biggest draft trade up since 2003, but they also got solid veteran presence in free agency. With Mark Barron, Devin Bush, and the returning Vince Williams, the Steelers have their best depth at inside linebacker since arguably 2016. They all bring something unique to the table. Make no mistake, much like the defensive line, there is a problem with the middle linebacker spot—and it’s a good one to have. Which ones do you keep on the field and which ones do you rotate in?
Vince Williams: 7th Season out of Florida State
Let’s start with the incumbent middle linebacker, Vince Williams. After Shazier’s career-risking injury, Vinny became the man in the middle. An excellent pass rusher and a solid run stopper, Williams brings a grit the Steelers linebackers are known for. Vince has done a solid job as a starting linebacker; however, the elite play making ability isn’t quite there. Despite recording 8 sacks and an interception (notable that the interception was in a huge game against the Patriots) in 2017, the production took a slight dip. In 2018, Williams recorded only 4.5 sacks and an interception (though it went for a touchdown.) One would argue that this dip in production could be due to a lack of a playmaking counterpart in the 3-4 defense. I firmly believe Williams is good 3-4 linebacker in run support—a complimentary number 2. In addition, Williams coverage skills are not a strength of his. They are not outright terrible; he has had his moments where he held his own against running backs. With that being said, it’s not very often he has won battles against tight ends and wide receivers when placed in those match ups. In conclusion, Williams presents the strength of strong run support, grit, and experience in the Steelers defense. On the downside, the lack of elite play making of his counterpart(s) has left much be desired in 2018 in Vinny’s production in 2018. Add this and the question of consistent pass coverage ability, and you have a case of Mr. Williams not necessarily being a chip in.
Mark Barron: 8th Season out of Alabama
Bring in Mark Barron. In 2012, the Buccaneers selected Mark Barron, a play making safety out of Alabama, with the 7th overall pick. Two years later, he was traded to the St. Louis Rams (now Los Angeles.) In the process he converted from safety to a more hybrid linebacker type of role. During the 2015 season, he broke out recording 116 tackles, a sack, and 3 forced fumbles and infamously stumbled into Ben Roethlisberger’s knee—knocking Big Ben out of the game and the following four. The next two seasons he racked up solid numbers. Though he was never selected to a pro bowl, he was still considered a solid hybrid linebacker. His run defense? Solid. Pass coverage? Solid. Barron brings athleticism, toughness, and flashes play making abilities in run support and pass coverage. So how did he find his way to Pittsburgh? According to PFF, Barron is coming off one of his worst graded seasons. Though his post season run was one that showed his abilities as an athlete, the overall picture left much to be desired. Barron is a hybrid linebacker who brings veteran pedigree, more athleticism, and bits and pieces of play making ability. He also is still a big question mark on consistency.
Devin Bush: Rookie 1st Round Selection of out Michigan
Finally, let’s talk about the biggest name from the 2018 NFL Draft Class: Devin Bush. The last time the Steelers moved up double digit spots for a player in first round of the draft? A legend was selected in Troy Polamalu. While that is a huge comparison to make, analysts Louis Riddick of ESPN and Barrett Brooks of NBC Sports hailed Devin Bush as the “pound for pound” best player in the NFL Draft. The Steelers took the gamble and traded two 2018 picks and a 2019 pick to select Bush. Why? The missing element of the middle linebacker spot: play making ability. Devin Bush’s sideline to sideline speed and pursuit matched closely with that of Ryan Shazier. His leadership and attitude at Michigan made him an even more intriguing selection. His knowledge of the game and NFL pedigree in the family made the prospect more enticing. A tough tackler and surprising instincts for a player at his age, surely, he is a shoe in day one? Not so fast. Let’s remember, he is a rookie and there will surely be a learning curve along the way. Factor in the knocks on him from scouts: size, consistent diagnosing, and occasional over pursuing. Diagnosing and pursuit can be overcome. I am not worried about his “size,” scouts consistently brought up. It’s worth mentioning the same was said about Ryan Shazier and another Steelers legend Jack Lambert. I am willing to say that if Devin Bush impresses and produces throughout training camp and preseason, he will be in the starting line up on day one. He simply has too much athleticism and play making abilities to be kept off the field, but those elements coming together at the professional level have yet to be seen.
This is a great problem to have for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Three very capable inside linebackers all competing for playing time. This is what training camp and preseason is all about, isn’t it? Time to evaluate, get creative in getting these guys all on the field, and put them in position to make plays and execute. Whether it’s a Bush-Williams base combination or Bush-Barron sub-package combination, it will be exciting to watch these linebackers compete and make their case for the upcoming regular season. Let’s not forget about the battles for the backup spots for this position either. Dirty Red is no guarantee to make roster—he’ll have competition with the rookies Ulysees Gilbert III & Sutton Smith. Thank God, football is back!
Check back soon as we dive into more battles in training camp and preseason as we approach the first game of the 2019 preseason.