ARLINGTON TX - FEBRUARY 06: Stevenson Sylvester #55 of the Pittsburgh Steelers warms up before Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium on February 6 2011 in Arlington Texas. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
The famed buck linebacker position in the Steelers defense is one of leadership. It's about knowing 11 positions on the field and how they interact in order to achieve coach Mike Tomlin's stated mission of defending every blade of grass on the field.
Stevenson Sylvester describes that position, one in which he's hard at work learning this off-season, as being rooted in communication.
For Sylvester, it's all about communication. He shared those thoughts with BTSC recently, between several workouts, both mentally and physically. One could only walk away from it knowing he's on a mission to earn a place at the defensive table this year.
The third-year Utah graduate is amid the most critical offseason of his career. His positional group saw the loss of its leader, James Farrior, and without a currently identified long-term replacement for the important buck linebacker spot, Sylvester could be that guy.
But will he be?
The Steelers had some in-season auditions in 2011. Farrior missed two games, the first action he'd missed since 2006. In one of those games, Week 8 vs. New England, Sylvester and veteran Larry Foote, took the inside linebacker positions against the highly touted Patriots offense.
What was, ultimately, a win for the Steelers defense, even by Sylvester's admittance, it wasn't his best game.
"It's really hard to make your first start against Tom Brady," he said. "I didn't let the game come to me as much as I should have."
Sylvester almost sounds solemn when he recollects the game. He looked like he was overthinking instead of reacting - paralysis by analysis. The first play, a fire blitz - the staple of defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau's use of the inside linebackers - saw he and Foote cross paths over the center, and Sylvester got some push on right guard Brian Water. Brady completed a quick pass to TE Aaron Hernandez.
The second play, designed as a run off left tackle, was sniffed out quickly and stuffed by NT Casey Hampton. Sylvester was late to react, and was quickly enveloped by Waters at roughly the same spot Sylvester started before the snap. Sylvester left the field on third down, the nickel package they brought in FS Ryan Mundy and CB Keenan Lewis in place of Sylvester and Hampton.
Not a bad start. Not a great start. But it was his first start.
It's not that he's a slow starter. But he finishes much stronger than he starts.
He started his athletic life as a self-proclaimed sports renaissance man. There wasn't a sport or a set of stats young Stevenson wouldn't devour. Growing up in Las Vegas, he was a standout football and basketball player, but a late growth surge opened doors athletically he didn't think would open.
"Football was always my favorite sport," he said. "I just never thought being a pro athlete was something I could achieve."
According to his college coach, Kyle Whittingham, Sylvester "sometimes looked lost on the football field." He said he was recruited to Utah more on the athletic ability he showed as a basketball player.
It paid off. Sylvester was a three-time all-conference player for the Utes. The basketball player they recruited to play football started 37 games, and was their captain his junior and senior years.
If he started slow, he finished in a fury.
Two plays into his first NFL start, Sylvester said he kept talking to his teammates. Whether it was Farrior or LaMarr Woodley, he kept communicating.
Sometimes the best defense is a good offense. The Patriots ran three plays in the first quarter of that game, and trailed 10-0 when they finally got the ball for their second possession. He doesn't factor much in a pass completion to WR Wes Welker, but gets moved off the ball by LG Logan Mankins on a run to Kevin Faulk. On third and short, it's another run to Faulk in Sylvester's direction.
He shows the athleticism he clearly has, but in taking a side step to avoid the oncoming LT Matt Light, he takes a step back as well, conceding enough ground for Faulk to slide through for a first down.
It's still coming. He's still working.
Sylvester's in position for a tackle on the shifty Faulk after a short completion, but Faulk squirts through. Sets the edge on the defensive right side on a Faulk sweep, but is eventually overpowered by Light.
Then you see it.
Foote, playing the buck, makes a last-nano-second coverage call, which Sylvester quickly relays to the secondary. Brady snaps the ball at the same time, and Sylvester quickly peels into coverage. Hernandez runs across the middle, covered in zone by Foote. Sylvester sees Hernandez coming, but stays disciplined. Just as Brady releases, Sylvester is in perfect position to make a play on the ball, and does. It's a great throw by Brady, considering the circumstances; low and away from the defender, but Sylvester gets low and puts a good hit on Hernandez, forcing the incompletion.
A holding penalty called on Foote nullifies the play, but it's still on tape. Sometimes things don't work out.
"I talked to LaMarr after that game," he said. "He kept telling me, 'put it behind you, it's just one game.'"
As is the case with many younger Steelers defenders, opportunities to show their abilities come less frequently than they'd like. The Steelers ran to a lead early, forcing the pass happy Patriots to stick with passing packages for pretty much the rest of the game. The Steelers countered with a dime defense, playing SS Troy Polamalu essentially as an inside linebacker pretty much the rest of the way.
Chalk the win up to the defense, one of the few defensive wins over the AFC Champion Patriots in 2011.
He was better in that game. Sharper. He let the game come more easily to him. It led to a heightened sense of confidence the rest of the season, even if his playing time didn't ever increase beyond that two-game stretch.
That confidence has carried him through a disappointing loss at Denver in the playoffs, through to Farrior's release - as unexpected as it was.
"I was in the weight room when someone said they released a lot of guys," Sylvester said. "I looked at the whole picture and tried to see where I would fit in. It was an opportunity for me, just like college and even my rookie season."
One veteran's departure means a younger guy must be ready to compete for that position. With a draft looming, and inside linebacker being a possible target of a high-round pick, Sylvester said he's working hard to learn the buck linebacker position. Taking linebackers coach Kevin Butler's advice, he's been working hard to learn every position he can, but this year, it's about the buck.
"I have a lot to do learning the buck position," he said. "If they draft someone high, it's good competition and it's good for the organization. I gotta do what I gotta do to get on the field this year."
It's just not an easy position to learn. Farrior's experience perhaps made it look easy, but the key to the position, according to Sylvester is communication.
And that's something in which Sylvester is highly skilled. He's very articulate, and has a great sense of his role. He mentions several examples of great linebackers he hopes to emulate.
"I know James has been in the game for a long time here," he said. "I've been talking to him since the season ended, he just loves the game, like that guy down in Baltimore."
That guy, of course, is Ray Lewis. He's not drawing a comparison of Lewis to his game, nor is he setting that kind of expectation, but he is studying several established players in an effort to continue to improve.
He's shown sudden leaps of progress at every level he's competed since he was a teenager. It's certainly not out of the question he can do it again. The guy recruited to Utah on the strength of what he showed on the basketball court is only scratching the surface of his potential, and even if the Steelers do look at a future buck linebacker in the upcoming draft, let that player be forewarned:
Sylvester is just starting to hit his stride.