As soon as Ryan Shazier got injured, it was obvious that the Steelers’ inside linebacker situation was dire. Yet, it wasn't expected to remain this way when the 2018 season rolled around.
I'm not even sure I can blame Kevin Colbert all that much. He tried to trade up for Rashaan Evans and failed to do so. They didn't like anyone much after that, even though there probably was still quality talent available. Maybe they could have made a run at Avery Williamson or Mychal Kendricks, but then again, they wouldn't have been able to afford either of them.
The Steelers then faced the Eagles on Thursday in Week 1 of the preseason, and fans saw just how bad the ILB situation actually is in Pittsburgh. Vince Williams is who we know him to be -- a good run-stopping ILB who struggles heavily in coverage. Jon Bostic and Tyler Matakevich both struggled, and although Bostic looked much better, he still didn't look very good.
But L.J. Fort and Matthew Thomas both had decent games. Fort recorded a tackle for a loss and showed his ability to cover adequately. Thomas got lots of reps at EDGE, but during those reps, he showed he has discipline to his gap, lateral quickness, and the ability to fight through traffic.
Both of them have something in common — they are athletic playmakers. That's something this defense needs desperately in the middle of the field. Vince Williams isn't that, and neither Bostic nor Matakevich fit that mold.
The only other way to solve this would be to go sign Navorro Bowman or move Terrell Edmunds to ILB. Edmunds would get bullied and washed out of plays since he's simply not big enough to fight through traffic, and Bowman is injury-prone.
To recap the preseason performances of both Bostic and Matakevich, they both had less than starter-level games. For Bostic, the real tell-all would be the huge gain Jay Ajayi got due to four missed tackles for the Steelers' run-defense.
This play is just a mess. The DL gets absolutely pushed out of the play, Chickillo then decides to leave the gap open and gets washed into the play. Bostic, Burnett, and Burns whiff on the tackle. Good angle by Haden at least. This is what killed them last season. pic.twitter.com/RVP7r7clVE— Nick Farabaugh (@FarabaughFB) August 14, 2018
(Good angle by Sean Davis, not Joe Haden. The new numbers strike.)
Bostic wasn't the direct cause for this play breaking open. Morgan Burnett has to come down harder into the gap and fill it so Ajayi cannot do exactly what he does on this play. Yet, Bostic had the discipline to read the cutback and make a play, but he missed the tackle. He didn't do this often last season, but it's not an encouraging sign to see that here in the first preseason game.
Bostic did rebound to make some nice plays in the backfield, blowing up two runs that were counters and traps respectively. This at least shows a high football IQ of recognizing the play and weaving through the crowd to blow up plays. However, he was putrid in coverage. He looked lost and gave receivers far too much room in zone. Matakevich and Bostic both were big reasons Dallas Goedert had a big impact. Giving up so much room, they allowed Sudfeld and Goedert to play pitch and catch.
Matakevich was the worse of the two offenders, though. He showed a lack of athleticism and looked extremely slow in space. That's not only in coverage, but in one-on-one tackling scenarios. Corey Clement and Nate Sudfeld made him look silly.
Matakevich really did not play well. In space he is not disciplined and does not move well even in the 1v1 scenarios to get enough merit here. He gets juked out a few times this game, but man this play just show how much of an issue his lateral quickness in space is. pic.twitter.com/HYmB1G5Xvo— Nick Farabaugh (@FarabaughFB) August 14, 2018
He displays a complete lack of lateral quickness here and chops his feet in hesitation (which Bostic did on the Ajayi run too). Props to Javon Hargrave for forcing the cutback but Matakevich doesn't the fill the back end and leave his hips open, which allows Clement to juke straight past him for a sizable gain.
And then this is just not only a bad angle. but also a terrible lack of any agility from Matakevich. Sudfeld is not much of an athlete, but Matakevich gets thrown out of his shoes and gives up the easy sack. pic.twitter.com/5hXCo3ctwG— Nick Farabaugh (@FarabaughFB) August 14, 2018
For one, Matakevich takes such a sharp angle and is so slow in getting around the corner that he allows Sudfeld to just sidestep by him and bully him for a touchdown. However, Bostic looks lost in coverage. If you look at where he is, he just looks lost and is nowhere to be found. It's as if he lost Goedert, when Bostic should have been in that zone, he was lost instead.
After seeing three ILBs that aren't playmakers and shoddy in coverage, the Steelers need to look to their athletic backups. It's no secret that Fort was much better than Sean Spence ever was last season, and yet they never played. Fort has already shown his playmaking ability in camp, and he has made a few interceptions to boot.
Thomas is an athletic monster who seems to have improved his once subpar instincts. As long as he stays away from off-the-field issues, Thomas likely has a good shot at the 53-man roster.
Against the Packers this upcoming Thursday, Fort and Thomas deserve much longer looks against higher level competition than they did in the first preseason game. Maybe Bostic and Matakevich aren't the answers, and it's a worthwhile investment to see if Fort or Thomas can be that guy.
As of now, this really seems like their best option to deal with the ILB fiasco.