Game tape doesn’t lie.
It can deceive, at times, because we can’t always tell what the play was supposed to look like, but it’s never totally false. All we usually have to go on is what actually transpired, but that’s typically enough to form a generally clear picture.
The truths that it’s been telling about Pittsburgh Steelers inside linebacker Tyler Matakevich have been, quite literally, all good.
In this Next Steelers Household Names series, I intentionally saved Matakevich for last. That’s because, for all the good that Javon Hargrave and Eli Rogers have done through their first two pre-season games this year, neither of them has been as consistently above the line as Matakevich .
That last statement does come with a caveat, however. It has to be duly noted that both Hargrave and Rogers are seeing their playing time in the first half of each game, against the opponents’ ones and twos. Matakevich has, so far, played fourth-quarter, mop-up duty.
But what stands out so much about his game film so far isn’t what others are doing around him; it’s what he’s doing, because he simply looks entirely different from all the other third- and fourth-string players around him, on both sides of the ball.
He looks like he knows what he’s doing.
Surrounded by 21 other players who are desperate to make some sort of an impression and, as a result, do something stupid about every second or third snap, Matakevich is simply out there playing his own game. He’s playing the game the same way he played at Temple, where he finished his career as the school’s all-time leading tackler with 493 — no fewer than 101 in any of his four seasons — and racked up a boatload of accolades.
He was the American Athletic Conference Player of the Year in 2015, as well as a consensus All-American. His 493 tackles are third-most in NCAA history.
He won the Bronco Nagursky Trophy, given to the most outstanding defensive player in the NCAA as judged by the Football Writers Association of America. For perspective, previous winners include Aaron Donald, Luke Keuchly, Terrell Suggs, Champ Bailey, Charles Woodson and Warren Sapp.
He also took home the Chuck Bednarik Award, which is essentially the same award, but is voted by the Maxwell Football Club. As a winner, he joins Donald, Tyrann Mathieu, Patrick Peterson, Julius Peppers and Woodson, among others.
He’s just the seventh player to win both in the same season. It’s a remarkable accomplishment for even the most highly sought-after players. For reasons that are more ethereal than scientific, the highly accomplished linebacker was not one of those.
If the guy was three inches taller, ten pounds heavier, or a quarter-second quicker in the 40-yard dash, he probably would have been drafted before the end of the third round. What you see in the measuring tape doesn’t match up to what you see in game tape. Basically, that means those measurements are less valid deviations from the “prototypical” inside linebacker than they are a bunch of nonsensical, fear-filled hooey.
You can watch him play, and wonder to yourself how he does what he does. Go ahead and question it, because it’s fair. If you see him standing around between plays, literally nothing about him makes you think he’s a professional football player. He’s not that tall, he’s nowhere near the sculpted form of a Ryan Shazier, and he doesn’t even stand out as a potential athlete. You look at him standing still, and you probably think, “eh, maybe he’ll make the practice squad.”
Then you watch him play, and you realize that he has a secret weapon to make up for those alleged shortcomings: the man reads plays as if the call was plastered on the Jumbotron before the snap. Against the Eagles in week two of the pre-season, for instance, he played every defensive snap for the Steelers in the fourth quarter. Not once -- not a single time — did he misdiagnose a play. There were one or two where he got caught in traffic, but he knew where the play was going the whole time.
He does so well, despite his alleged shortcomings, because he plays the fundamentals of defense like he wrote the de facto how-to manual. Tackling? He always wraps up rather than going for the big hit. Against the run, he quickly identifies the hole and uses his one overwhelmingly positive athletic skill -- a quick burst to full speed — to get there before the runner or his blockers. He stacks and sheds blockers like a veteran. Against the Eagles, he chased two runs down from behind, dropping one for a three-yard loss, because he pulled off what looks for all the world like something just shy of ESP when reading the play at the line.
He can rush the passer, and even dropped into coverage on several occasions. That was most evident in week three of the pre-season when he dropped into the short middle zone, read the eyes of the quarterback, and undercut a route for an interception. It was his first as a professional, but it goes along with the seven he pulled down in college — including five as a senior.
Truly, he’s perplexing. At a time when the league is largely being taken over by athletes whose statures fall somewhere between Michelangelo’s David and the Greek god Atlas, Matakevich more closely physically resemble’s Sean Astin’s Rudy. But he’s excelling so far in his admittedly brief career as a professional football player, not because of overwhelming size or physical strength, but rather his aptitude for the game and a well-honed craft.
It’s hard to tell how Matakevich will do against better competition. But given the company he keeps as a winner of both the Bednarik and Nagursky awards, it’s probably a pretty safe bet to assume he will adapt and overcome. A quick look at the winners of those awards makes it obvious that the respective selection committees don’t make many mistakes.
Matakevich, however, is already doing a good job proving that 31 teams sure did. After all, the evidence is right there on the game film.