Upon Review: Grading the 2023 Steelers linebackers

Steel City Underground presents it’s ‘Upon Review’ series of Pittsburgh Steelers positional group grades for the 2023 NFL season with statistical analysis and performance reviews.

The Pittsburgh Steelers entered the 2023 NFL season having bolstered depth at their interior and middle linebacker positions, with their outside linebackers solid, to prevent opponents from exploiting the second line of defense. Injuries once again plagued the Steelers among the linebackers positional group, though. The team found a way to keep plugging holes and be competitive.

In this performance review, we look at how the players in these positions fared.

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The outside linebackers

There’s little argument that T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith are among the best outside linebackers duos in the NFL. Watt led the league (his third time to do so) with 19 sacks and was the first player to set that mark since that statistic first became official (1982). Watt was snubbed as NFL Defensive Player of the Year despite adding 36 quarterback hits, 19 tackles for a loss, four forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and an interception.

Highsmith added 7 sacks, 18 quarterback hits, eight tackles for a loss, two forced fumbles and two interceptions

The Steelers selected Nick Herbig in the fourth-round of the 2023 NFL Draft and the former Wisconsin Badger led the team in special teams snaps (352) while working into the defensive roster with Markus Golden. The two depth players combined for seven sacks, 11 tackles for a loss, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, and 13 quarterback hits. The two played just 421 combined snaps on defense.

This foursome had to fight for every play. They didn’t disappoint.

Group grade: A

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The inside/middle linebackers

The Steelers started the season with
Elandon Roberts, Cole Holcomb, Kwon Alexander and Mark Robinson on the roster. Season-ending injuries to Holcomb (broken leg) and Alexander (Achilles tendon) led to Roberts holding things together for Pittsburgh.

Roberts led the group in snap totals and led the defense with 101 tackles. He also logged 10 tackles for a loss and 2.5 sacks.

Due to attrition, the Steelers reached out to a retired Myles Jack and signed him to the practice squad roster late in the season before activating him for the first three regular season games and their playoff appearance. Mykal Walker and Blake Martinez got very limited in-game opportunities as Pittsburgh shuffled their personnel.

The Steelers got more out of their interior linebackers in 2023 than they did in 2022 despite the injury situation. The group accounted for 5.5 sacks, 23 tackles for a loss, four forced fumbles, and two interceptions.

The defense did suffer, at times, due to the necessary shift of personnel. Opposing tight ends were an issue in the final months of the season, as were teams that were able to get their running backs to the next level. As a result, Pittsburgh finished near the bottom of the league (20 overall) after allowing 864 yards and seven touchdowns to tight ends on the back end of their season.

Group grade: B-

A large part of this group’s grade can be attributed to communication as players who were “quarterbacking the defense” by wearing the green dot – namely Holcomb and Alexander – were forced off the roster. Roberts had an outstanding season, but he didn’t always get the support needed from other guys he was playing next to at the position.

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