Spence’s Status Aside, Depth Is Problem for Steelers at Inside Linebacker


Before I begin this post, I just want to say that I am really rooting hard for Sean Spence to somehow resume his N.F.L. career.

Pittsburgh’s 2012 3rd round draft pick was in the midst of a solid rookie-preseason until his knee was absolutely shredded in the Steelers’ final game against the Panthers last August.  The former Miami Hurricane not only tore his ACL and LCL ligaments on that fateful evening, but he even dislocated his knee cap and sustained damage the peroneal nerve as well.  The injury was so gruesome that doubt and debate still linger regarding whether or not Sean will even be able to make his N.F.L.-debut.

Recently, Pittsburgh’s linebackers coach Keith Butler stated during a “Draft Weekend” interview that it would be “miraculous” if Spence ever returned to the field.  On the other hand, head coach Mike Tomlin chimed in last week on the subject and said that Spence’s recovery is on schedule.

Debate over Spence aside, I believe that the bigger issue at hand right now is that the Steelers’ lack experienced depth at inside linebacker.  Due to this fact, Pittsburgh’s defense could be in a world of trouble if something happens injury-wise to Larry Foote or Lawrence Timmons this fall.

Exactly how bereft of experienced depth are the Steelers at the inside linebacker position at the moment though?

Well, I certainly hate to be a “Negative Nancy,” but I think that all of us in “Steeler Nation” need to hope that both Foote and Timmons can play and start all 16 regular season games this year with the kind of depth the team possesses behind them at the moment:

Sylvester is now entering his 4th year in the league. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Stevenson Sylvester

While some of you readers might be comfortable that the Steelers have four-year veteran Stevenson Sylvester behind Foote and Timmons, let me ask you the following question:

"How much confidence does the franchise have in a player who they did not even bother to RFA tender when the free agency period began?"

Over his three year career with the Steelers, Sylvester (6’2″ 231 lbs.) has been mainly a special teams player and only logged one career start at inside linebacker.  I understand that it was difficult for Stevenson to get on the field over the last three years (22 career tackles) with veterans like Timmons, Foote, and James Farrior in front of him.

I for one cannot blame the coaching staff’s lack of confidence in Sylvester.  I mean, the guy struggled on special teams last year and was not even RFA tendered this past spring!  As Butler alluded to in an interview on “Draft Weekend,” 2013 will essentially be Sylvester’s last chance to prove himself to the coaching staff that he can be a capable backup and a possible starter at inside linebacker.  While Stevenson is currently the #1 backup option behind Timmons and Foote, he will nevertheless have some competition for said spot over the coming months.

Vince Williams

Although Williams was drafted in the 6th round and the Steelers passed on more talented prospects like Arthur Brown and Khaseem Greene earlier in the draft, I still believe that the former Seminole has the tools to be an effective backup and potential developmental starter at the professional level.

A two-year starter in college, Williams racked up a combined 113 tackles and 11.5 tackles for loss during his junior and senior seasons.  A squat, yet large-framed (6’1″ 250 lbs.) individual as well, Vince is a “downhill” linebacker who is at his best when he supports the run and can attack in the trenches.  While Williams’ pass-coverage skills and agility in pass-coverage are less than stellar at this point in his career, he was not on the field very much on passing-downs in college.  Thus, there is at least some hope that with some possible weight-shedding and a developmental period that Williams can improve in said area.

While the upside and tenacity are there with Williams, he is almost assuredly destined for special teams duty as a rookie.  I for one do not consider that to be a bad thing either, especially because the coaching staff will need to determine whether or not the former can be a potential “three-down linebacker” at the professional level.  Plus, the complex defensive scheme that Dick LeBeau employs usually requires players to sit for a year or two and learn on the bench.  For now though, I guess we can get excited about Williams possibly laying out opposing return men on special teams.

Marshall McFadden

McFadden has paid his dues over the last couple of years on Pittsburgh’s practice squad, and his knowledge of the defensive scheme could lead to him receiving a long-look as a backup linebacker in the preseason.

After going undrafted and unsigned during his first year out of college, the former South Carolina State Bulldog was signed shortly after the 2011 season ended.  Since that time, McFadden has been shuttled on-and-off of the team’s practice squad, and he failed to play a regular season down for the Steelers as a rookie.

To his credit, Marshall performed well enough during the 2012 preseason (15 tackles ranked 2nd on the team) to earn a practice squad contract with the team last year.  He definitely has the size to play between the tackles (6’1″ 233 lbs.), and the coaching staff obviously feels comfortable keeping him around for another tryout period.  Thus, if he can continue to improve he should be in the mix to push his competition vying for backup and special teams roles.

Brian Rolle

Brian Rolle definitely interests me the most out of all the players I will list today, particularly because he has the most professional starting experience of any of Pittsburgh’s backup linebackers.  During his rookie campaign of 2011, Rolle actually received a good deal of playing time with the Eagles.  Although injuries and poor-play forced him into the lineup, the former Buckeye played in all 16 regular season games and started 13 of them.  Overall, Brian managed to rack up 51 tackles and he even returned a fumble recovery 22 yards for a touchdown.

While Rolle showed some promise as a rookie, his 2012 season was downright dreadful.  The linebacker not only lost his starting job to Akeem Jordan before the regular season began, but he was also passed over on the team’s depth chart by Jamar Chaney when Jordan sustained an injury early last year.  Unfortunately, the benching was not the worst thing that happened to the linebacker last year.  Rolle was actually released by Philadelphia midway through the season due to his poor play on special teams.

Last season’s issues aside, Rolle could be in the running to be Timmons’ backup at the “Mack” spot on the weakside over the next few months.  Brian however will have to learn to fight off blocks better against interior linemen and also must learn pass-cover consistently if he wants to nail down a backup gig.  Most of all though, Brian will have to prove that he can play well on special teams if he wishes to stick around, because Pittsburgh’s coaches are unlikely to carry a backup linebacker who is unable to contribute on the special teams coverage units.

Kion Wilson

Like McFadden, Wilson has been on and off of N.F.L. practice squads over the last couple of seasons.  Wilson (6′ 230 lbs.) was signed by the Chargers in the spring of 2010 after he went undrafted.  After one year on San Diego’s practice squad, Wilson signed with Carolina in 2011.  During his first two pro seasons, Kion only suited up for a total of eight games.

Last season, Wilson failed to play a regular season down with any N.F.L. team after he was cut by the Panthers when the preseason came to a close.  It will be an uphill climb for Wilson to earn a roster spot this year, and he will really have to shine for the Steelers to bring him aboard to their 53-man roster.  I just do not see how he can leap frog McFadden, Rolle, and Williams for a job unless he is an absolute force on special teams.

Final Thoughts

I for one will be interested to see how the depth chart behind Timmons and Foote eventually shakes out once the preseason ends.  It will definitely be a competitive battle between the four aforementioned players, and it would not surprise me if undrafted rookies Alan Baxter and Terence Garvin receive some work at inside linebacker this summer as well.

Overall though, one of my biggest fears regarding the upcoming season is that either Foote or Timmons will be sidelined for extended periods and that Pittsburgh will be forced to turn to one or more of these unproven players before they are ready to contribute.  While some of these players could very well surprise in 2013, the fact is that Pittsburgh’s defense will probably be at a tremendous disadvantage if any of the backups are pressed into duty at some point this fall.

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