Training Camps are slowly and cautiously opening around the NFL, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are working towards placing themselves back into the playoff conversation. This training camp preview will focus on the Steelers inside linebackers for 2020. This group features a rising star and a veteran who is the key cog for the defense’s on-field communications. We will also preview the depth behind him.
Bush and Williams headline the Steelers inside linebackers in 2020
The Steelers enter the 2020 season with a potentially strong duo at inside linebacker. Devin Bush enters his second season with the team after having a productive rookie season, with a year under his belt, the game will likely slow down for him. Vince Williams now 30 years of age, should see the on-field snaps he lost to Mark Barron who is now a free agent. The main question will be how the lineup will work in the team’s nickel and dime groupings with Bush being a better option in coverage.
The Steelers invested a lot to acquire Bush, trading three draft picks to move up for the 10th overall draft pick in the 2019 NFL draft to select him. Pittsburgh hasn’t had a linebacker with the ability and athleticism Bush possesses since the injury to Ryan Shazier. Combined with his nose for the ball, his two interceptions and four fumble recoveries demonstrated that Pittsburgh’s investment was well worth it.
With Bud Dupree and TJ Watt providing consistent pass rush off the edge, Bush’s quickness and anticipation should lead to him becoming even more of an impact player at the inside linebacker position in 2020 for Pittsburgh.
Will the Steelers learn from their experiences in 2019?
In 2019, the Steelers attempted to go with more athleticism at the inside backer position. Bush proved to be worth it, but Barron proved otherwise for the Steelers last season. Barron being on the field had cost Williams playing time and hurt the Steelers defense in terms of on-field communication. Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler has expressed this as well.
“Sometimes you have to make adjustments, Vince is real good at doing that for us. Getting calls to the guys and making sure we are all on the same page.”
Projecting the depth for the Steelers inside linebackers in 2020
Barron was released early in the off-season with just one year remaining on his contract. Tyler Matakevich, a long time reserve and special teams player, was signed in free agency by the Buffalo Bills. Ulysees Gilbert’s rookie season was cut short due to injury but should fill the void left by Matakevich. Although undersized, Gilbert’s athleticism should allow him to play well on specials and in a reserve role.
When Gilbert’s season was cut short, it opened up the door for Robert Spillane to make an impact for the Steelers on special teams. He will be a player that Steelers fans should keep an eye on during training camp.
Steelers players fighting for an opportunity
Within the Steelers 3-4 base defense and training camp forcing teams to limit their rosters to 80 players, the chance for another inside backer to make the Steelers in 2020 will be slim. Steelers undrafted rookie John Houston won’t have the opportunity to play in live-action without preseason games. This eliminates his chance to showcase his abilities on special teams and with on-field defensive reps, and is likely destined for the practice squad.
Leo Lewis, another undrafted free agent from Mississippi State, while exhibiting athletic traits is in a similar spot, will likely find himself on the practice squad or off the roster. Again, with the training camp rosters being limited, either one of these players could be in jeopardy of not making it to the regular season.
A name to watch from free agency
A name that Steelers fans should keep an eye on is Jake Ryan, signed originally in free agency by the Baltimore Ravens, but was then released. He could be an ILB that the Steelers have their eyes on for 2020. If Gilbert or Spillane struggle in camp, Ryan has previous experience playing in an odd front defense from the inside. He’s not nearly as athletic as some of the younger guys but could provide experience to other players that don’t have any.
Final overview of the Steelers inside linebackers
The Steelers should be stronger with their two projected starters heading into the season. Bush looks to improve upon his strong rookie campaign while being more comfortable playing on the inside of the Steelers 3-4 defense. Williams will likely be the Steeler’s defensive play-caller on the field.
The team’s youth with players like Gilbert and Spillane, whose reps will come mostly from special teams, will have the chance to potentially make a name for themselves as eventual successors to Williams. Younger players behind those two, Houston and Lewis, have strong chances to develop even further on the team’s practice squad.