Just when it looked like all of their starting players were on the mend, the Pittsburgh Steelers suffered a catastrophic blow to the linebacker position in back-to-back weeks. During their Thursday Night Football game against the Titans in Week, Cole Holcomb went down with a gruesome knee injury. One week later, Pittsburgh lost Kwon Alexander early in the game with what was later confirmed as a ruptured Achilles.
Both players have been ruled out for the remainder of the year, and there's no guarantee that either player will be ready to go by the start of the 2024 season. In Alexander's case, the veteran linebacker isn't even under contract with Pittsburgh beyond 2023.
In their absences, the Steelers have turned to a heavy dose of veteran Elandon Roberts and second-year linebacker Mark Robinson. In many ways, these two players are mirror images of each other. They can come downhill hard to defend the run and make plays near the line of scrimmage. Unfortunately, their struggles in pass coverage have already been on full display.
During his Week 11 press conference, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was asked about the suddenly shaky linebacker position and whether or not Pittsburgh would seek help in free agency. Tomlin was quick to shut down the idea -- noting that the team is not looking 'outside of the organization' for solutions.
Steelers need help at linebacker (whether Tomlin thinks so or not)
Mike Tomlin noted that some recent practice squad additions (like adding Mykal Walker) were forward-thinking moves. I have no doubt that this is the case. But will it be enough?
Though it's a small sample size, Elandon Roberts and Mark Robinson were exposed by QB Jordan Love and the Packers' offense in Week 10. It's not hard to figure out why this pairing struggles so badly in coverage.
Both Robinson and Roberts measure in at 5'11'' and change with compact frames and extremely short arms. Their body types and tiny wingspans don't allow much room for error in pass coverage and they can't do much to disrupt passing lanes. What's worse is that both players are average athletes at best without much speed and burst to their game.
If Tomlin plans to play both Roberts and Robinson on the field at the same time, it could give Pittsburgh a solid duo in run-down work but could be disastrous in obvious passing situations (think of it as having a pair of Vince Williams' on the field at the same time).
For this reason, it's clear that the Steelers need help at the position. Unfortunately, it's slim pickings in free agency right now with almost no quality names to note that haven't already been signed by opposing teams. Because of this, the best option might be rolling out more dime packages and getting an extra defensive back on the field on obvious passing downs.
Unfortunately, Pittsburgh's secondary has been even more concerning than their linebacking corps this year. Still, I wouldn't be surprised to see bigger roles from players like Keanu Neal and Elijah Riley. The latter piqued my interest against the Packers with his ability to cover the slot and come downhill to make plays in the backfield.
Whatever Tomlin ultimately decides to do, he's going to learn really fast just how big of a liability the combination of Elandon Roberts and Mark Robinson could be in pass defense. If he's sold on not looking for outside help, let's hope Tomlin and DC Teryl Austin can figure out a rotation on defense that won't have opposing quarterbacks exposing them even more than they have already been exposed in the passing game.