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Talkin' Inside Linebackers: A Curious Approach to the Mack and the Buck

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As Jim Wexell pointed out on Twitter Wednesday morning, the report of a trade between the Steelers and the Jets nearly being consummated during April's draft says, among other things, the Steelers did not have Alabama LB Dont'a Hightower at the top of their board in terms of expected picks.

Had Bruce Irvin not been drafted by Seattle, the Steelers would have moved up to No. 16 in the draft, and selected OG David DeCastro. The Jets backed out of the deal, opting to take the second of two targeted players - DE Quinton Coples - at 16 instead of risking losing both he and Irvin by trading down to 24.

Hightower was eventually taken by New England, and the rest will be history later on down the line.

As it is, the Steelers did not draft a buck linebacker of the future, indicating they're comfortable with veteran Larry Foote while continuing to groom Stevenson Sylvester for the future.

What Are Some Traits Of a Mack and a Buck Linebacker?

Defensive terminology varies largely depending on the coach's scheme. In a traditional 4-3 defense, linebackers are commonly identified as Sam, Mike and Will - match the first letters of where they would line up in relation to the offensive formation - strong, middle and weak.

The buck linebacker in the Steelers' defense is more like the mike - or middle - linebacker. That position holds responsibility for defensive play calls, alignment and communication on the field. As far as between the whistle, the buck is commonly the player filling gaps against the run, along with short middle zone pass coverage.

The mack linebacker is more of a scrape-and pursue defender (partially resembling the role of a will linebacker in a 4-3 defense). He's responsible for the outside edge, and takes a wider angle to get outside the box and contain the run. A mack doesn't need to have that same downhill attacking style of the buck, and is commonly more athletic.

What Role Will Sean Spence Play?

Lawrence Timmons is the Steelers' starting mack linebacker, and LBs coach Keith Butler made no bones about stating third-round draft pick Sean Spence would be a mack linebacker.

What's interesting about Spence is how much smaller he is than Timmons. Of course, that's a major reason why Spence was a Day 2 draft pick and Timmons was taken 15th overall. But with Spence, the Steelers add an interesting dynamic to their defense.

While Spence will not be labeled as a safety, I think his future direction is, essentially, one of a roving safety.

Looking back at the Steelers' win over New England in Week 8 of 2011, we saw the Steelers playing in nickel and dime packages for most of the game. Sylvester left the field, along with NT Casey Hampton, but oftentimes, we saw SS Troy Polamalu down in the box with Ss Ryan Clark and Ryan Mundy playing a Cover 2 shell.

Polamalu was essentially playing the mack linebacker position.

Obviously, Polamalu is going to be effective just about anywhere on the field, but bringing in a coverage-heavy linebacker who can provide at least some run support while getting the most out of the position in terms of coverage seems like a pretty effective strategy.

Spence is very fast and has a nose for the ball. He did well in coverage, and if he's pairing up with Timmons while the nose tackle leaves the field in lieu of another cornerback, the Steelers could have a very strong coverage unit.

I'm probably getting ahead of myself, Spence's playing time is obviously yet to be determined, but that kind of scenario, in a pass-happy league, could be the role they'll ask him to play in the future.

Is This Foote's Last Year?

With his contract expiring after this season, it most likely is. Foote is built in the mold of an old-school gap-filling middle linebacker, something that appears to be falling off in terms of priority in the league. Middle linebackers are coming in with much more coverage ability than they used to, and teams are looking for for three-down freakishly athletic LBs in the mold of Patrick Willis and Luke Kuechley.

Certainly, he may come back in 2013 to provide depth, but as for now, his highest and best use is really to serve as a continuity bridge between the old Steelers defense and the emerging youth among the front seven.

For as important as the buck linebacker has been for the Steelers over the past 10 years, they clearly said they feel the next buck is on the roster already - Sylvester. He's obviously not in the mold of Willis, but they appear to be surrounding him with outstanding athletes (i.e. Timmons and Spence).

How Good Is This Unit?

Last year is a really difficult sample to use when determining the overall success of the group. Timmons played out of place for much of the season. Farrior missed time as well. One of the most glaring weaknesses was their struggles in coverage in the base package, which is likely the biggest reason for both the release of Farrior and the selection of Spence. It's really just a different game than it was even three years ago.

Because of that, inside linebacker is one of the more intriguing positions to watch in training camp this year. How will they be utilized? In saying that, it's hard to gauge how good they are, because I see much of their roles adjusting more to offensive trends than staying strictly with what they've been in the past.