2023 Steelers Training Camp Preview: The Linebackers

It’s hard to believe but the Pittsburgh Steelers 2023 Training Camp is right around the corner. As we countdown the days until camp begins, SCU will highlight each position group detailing the players who will be competing for a spot on the Steelers’ final 53-man roster at the end of this Summer.

Last season, the Steelers linebacker corps was a wreck. Reigning Defensive Player of the Year, T.J. Watt, landed on injured reserve after the first game of the season and would miss seven games. This exposed the depth of the outside linebackers, but the inside linebackers struggled as well.

Myles Jack, who was signed last offseason, was released during this one. Former first round pick Devin Bush didn’t have his fifth-year option taken and was not brought back. Blue chipper Robert Spillane was also lost to free agency.

This left a lot of change during this offseason for Steelers GM Omar Khan who added several bodies to the edge and interior groups, while also extending a standout player. Here’s a look at those names.

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T.J. Watt

Following a Defensive Player of the Year award and tying the NFL record for most sacks in a single season in 2021, Watt would tear a pectoral muscle in Week 1’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals. The Steelers would struggle in his absence until Watt returned in Week 9 but would only register 5.5 sacks during the season.

However, Watt’s presence made for a Steelers in-season turnaround, as the team went 7-2 with their highly paid edge rusher.

A healthy Watt is now on pace to break James Harrison‘s all-time team sacks record. And after being in the DPOY award running for three consecutive seasons, Watt is no doubt ready to jump back into that conversation after missing out in 2022.

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Alex Highsmith

A third round pick in 2020 who was drafted as a potential successor to Bud Dupree, Highsmith had a career season with 14.5 sacks. He was rewarded with a contract extension this offseason that will keep him paired with Watt for years to come.

However, Highsmith’s ascension actually started one year earlier, when he took Melvin Ingram’s starting spot in Week 6 of the 2021 season.

From that point on, Highsmith would have 6 sacks, 14 tackles-for-loss, and 15 quarterback hits over 12 games.

The Charlotte product had 12 TFLs and 20 QBHs last year, which would give him 20.5 sacks, 26 TFS, and 35 QBHs over the course of his last 27 games – meaning the younger, and newly extended Highsmith is still ascending as a premiere NFL pass rusher.

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Edge Depth

As most Steelers fans recognized last year, Malik Reed wasn’t adequate enough as edge depth, nor was DeMarvin Leal meant to move from defensive end to outside linebacker. All other attempts to shore up depth from the loss of Watt to IR failed, exposing the defense badly against superior teams such as the Bills and Eagles.

That had to change this offseason.

Long-time Arizona Cardinals pass rusher Markus Golden becomes the new veteran depth option entering camp. The 32-year-old has multiple double-digit sack seasons in the NFL and with less of a workload behind Watt and Highsmith, should provide a spark when necessary.

The Steelers drafted Wisconsin Badger Nick Herbig in the fourth round as a developmental prospect. Considered to be undersized but having natural gifts, Herbig best fits as an edge in a 3-4 such as the Steelers system. He had 11 sacks in 11 games in the Big Ten in 2022 and added 9 in 13 games in 2021.

Pittsburgh also brought former sixth round pick Quincy Roche back to compete in camp.

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The New Inside Backers

The Steelers have struggled to find an adequate inside linebacker pair since Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams formed “Shake and Bake” back in 2017. The replacements have ranged from free agents like Jon Bostic, Mark Barron, and Myles Jack to draft picks such as Devin Bush.

Omar Khan went to the free agent well again this offseason after releasing Jack and not re-signing Bush or Spillane. In their place the front office signed two different former team captains, the Commanders’ Cole Holcomb and Dolphins Elandon Roberts.

Holcomb projects as the defensive play caller and three-down back, something he excelled at in Washington. Roberts, on the other hand, doesn’t possess the same pass coverage skills and is more of a Williams-style thumper in the run game.

Both signings were high profile enough to hopefully be the right combination that finally pays off in Pittsburgh.

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The Other Names

Last year’s seventh round pick Mark Robinson made a lot of heads turn by his hard-hitting play. However, he’s still only two years into playing the position and rather raw. It’s unlikely he leaves camp as the primary backup behind Holcomb and Roberts.

That’s why the Steelers brought in two more free agents for insurance.

Tanner Muse is a hybrid linebacker/safety type who can be a versatile chess piece the Steelers covet.

Nick Kwiatkoski was signed late into the offseason process but is a seven-year NFL veteran with 34 starts and 89 games played. He will compete to be the primary inside linebacker backup, and could even see a steady amount of playing time just as Spillane did in a rotation with Jack and Bush.

Regardless of who plays when and where, the entire linebacker group is heavily overhauled from 2022 and appears to be upgraded in every way possible.

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