What to watch for at Steelers Training Camp: Inside Linebacker position

Training camp is right around the corner, and the Pittsburgh Steelers will carry 90 men into camp this year. How do you know who to watch? What position battles are key? Who are we looking to keep an eye on? Over the next couple of weeks, we will break down some of the most hotly-contested position battles for you to know where to focus. These articles will contain no predictions and no sort of outcome, just a simple what to look for. Consider this your guide to camp. Let’s have some fun!

Where were you when the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Hall of Fame linebacker, Devin Bush?

Okay, I may be getting ahead of myself here, but we are talking about linebackers today and Bush has all of Steelers Nation very excited… but let’s come back down to Earth first before coronating Bush as a Hall of Famer…

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Inside Linebackers

The starting Buck LB this season, as has been the last two seasons, is Vince Williams. A two-down, downhill thumper with pass rush ability, Williams epitomizes blue collar Steelers football. He’s likely to come off the field for sub-packages again this season, but you know what you get with him.

The main thing to watch in camp is the how he works with whoever is the Mack-LB.

No matter who starts at Mack, it’ll be the third different player across from Williams in three seasons: Ryan Shazier, Jon Bostic, and Mark Barron or Devin Bush. A veteran player, Vince should be able to develop a rapport with his new running mate quickly at Latrobe. (Although, if you love physicality, definitely watch Vince when they put on pads and start hitting. The backs-on-backers drill is his bread and butter and just flat out fun to watch for pure football.)

Mark Barron is one of three big free agent signings this offseason. A safety-turned-linebacker convert, he has not lived up to his first-round status out of Alabama. Standing at 6’2, 230 lbs he has the size to play Mack-LB in Butler’s system, but at 30-years-old coming off a season full of injuries puts questions around his health.

Before the 2018 season started, he had shoulder surgery, and was then sidelined until Week 5 with a high ankle sprain. Come July there are three questions surrounding Mark Barron:

  1. Can he stay healthy?
  1. Can he retain some of the athleticism from his pre-injury days?
  1. And here is the big one, how long can he hold off Devin Bush?

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Devin Bush

Speaking of, the golden boy himself, all eyes will likely be on him come July. The first-round pick out of Michigan won’t be handed the starting job right away, however if all goes according to plan he should take hold of it by the end of camp. Ramon foster himself has stated of Bush:

Devin, you can tell he was first-round for a reason. The guy moves flawlessly, man. He’s a guy that knows what he’s going and you can tell our defensive coordinators, our defensive coaches and some of the older guys are pushing him also to get it down.

If he’s not ready to start, he won’t. As he grows and learns the playbook he will get more love in the starting unit. As the Mack-LB he will be the communicator for the defense, so it’s imperative he not only knows the playbook, but trusts what he sees in front of him.

What we as Steelers Nation needs to refrain from this summer is comparing him to Ryan Shazier. He is not Ryan Shazier. He is Devin’s Bush. The style of play is similar, but putting pressure on him to step in and try to be Ryan Shazier is unnecessary.

Let Devin be Devin, and he will be great.

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The other veteran on the roster is Tyler Matakevich, or Dirty Red. A special teams demon, that may very will be his path to the roster this year. With Darrius Heyward-Bey no longer donning the black and gold and Jordan Dangerfield on the bubble, Tomlin and company may choose to keep Matakevich just to have a special teams ace/captain on the roster.

Playing on an NFL defense has exposed Matakevich for his lack of size and athleticism, however he played faster than ever at Mini Camp and OTA’s and nobody will ever question his work ethic.

Can he continue to play fast at camp? And how far does he fall down the depth chart?

It might be good to see him develop a little bit of pass rush chops this season so he can take the top backup spot at the Buck-LB spot behind Vince Williams.

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Fifth-round Luck Ulysees Gilbert III III out of Akron will be fun to watch at camp: this man is fast. He projects well as a space linebacker in the NFL, but will need some work to crack the lineup. He will have to show special teams chops to make the 53-man roster in his rookie season.

His two biggest areas he needs to improve, in the trenches and in zone coverage. He’s excellent in man coverage, chasing down a ball carrier or shooting a gap, but get him caught in the trees with his size and he can disappear. While that won’t be his forte in the NFL, you want to see him have moderate success in camp.

His biggest need as a space linebacker suited for the Buck spot is reading and playing in zone coverage, something he should be expected to do a lot of in camp.

Tegray Scales is the sleeper. Likely destined for a practice squad spot, he could be this season’s Matthew Thomas.

An extremely athletic off-ball linebacker, Scales excelled in coverage at Indiana. He takes great angles and trusts his ability, allowing him to play much faster than his 4.77 forty time suggests. He struggled with his tackling at the college level, which doesn’t bode well for the NFL. He can get caught over pursuing and often forgets to wrap up, attempting a dive tackle.

Scales is good for splash plays, but it may take some time for the game to slow down in front of him, and that’s what we are looking at in camp. Can the game slow down for him, or will he be overwhelmed?

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Comeback Kid?

Lastly, I would be remiss if we didn’t talk about Ryan Shazier. After all, he is still a linebacker on the roster.

Shazier has embodied what it means to be a Steelers player and become the heart and soul of this city. We miss him dearly on the field, not just for his ability but his leadership and personality.

He still plans on playing the game of football and has a goal to be a Hall of Famer, and will continue rehabbing his spinal injury through training camp and the 2019 season. Everybody here at Steel City Underground is cheering for him every step of the way and wish him well in his continued recovery. He is an inspiration to this city, as well as this team.

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So, there you have it. Something to look at for every linebacker in camp this summer. What do you expect from each?

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