We should start to face it. The Steelers have an unprecedented amount of position battles that will affect their Super Bowl hopes this season. I am not sure I truly remember the Steelers having so many battles that could literally go any way. Through two games, some of these battles are just about as uncertain as they were the first day of training camp. So, in this game against the Tennessee Titans, where the starters will play, it will be a huge dynamic to see who will step up with the starters and stand out in these position battles. If there is one thing Mike Tomlin will do, it will be to give the depth pieces who have impressed opportunities to jump to a starting role.
Thus, here are three position battles that could be decided against the Titans and my prediction of who will win these battles.
The ILB Battle
Participants: Jon Bostic, Tyler Matakevich, Matthew Thomas, L.J. Fort
This is easily the most important battle on the roster and I do not think it is really close. Given the dire need at ILB after Ryan Shazier was lost for last season and this season, the Steelers did little to nothing to change the corps. The two things they did was sign Colts ILB Jon Bostic and sign UDFA Florida State ILB Matthew Thomas. The one thing we do know is that Vince Williams has one of the starting slots locked down. Williams is likely going to be the leader of this defense this year, and there is no discussion as it pertains to the security of his starting spot.
Jon Bostic was brought in to specifically start across from Williams, but has not lived up to expectations in the preseason at all. With an up and down game against the Eagles and a rough night against the Packers, Bostic may not get the starting spot by virtue. Yet, there could be a number of factors that contribute to this. For one, he is learning the scheme and adjusting to it, so it could be an adjustment issue. Maybe, he will improve with time as he gets settled on the team, after all, his Colts tape did not look nearly as bad as he has the past two weeks. Perhaps, the flashes he had against the Eagles will show up more prominently. However, that is all theorizing, and as it currently stands, I am very worried about Bostic as a whole and I do not comfortably believe in him as the starter across from Vince Williams.
Tyler Matakevich, a special teams extraordinaire, was the top backup to Ryan Shazier last season before he got hurt in the same game Shazier did. Kevin Colbert was confident that Matakevich would show that he could be a starting caliber ILB in the league, but so far he has shown little to nothing to merit that acclaim. His coverage and run defense are in the same vein, and they have been nothing to write home about. From an abundance of missed tackles against the Eagles, to a complete non-factor against the Packers, it is no shock that Matakevich’s chances of claiming the starting spot are slipping quickly.
L.J. Fort is one of two athletic play-making ILBs on the Steelers roster, the other being Matthew Thomas. Fort might be the best coverage ILB on the team, but his run defense leaves much to be desired. The Steelers played Sean Spence over him last season, so I am not so sure where I want to instill my confidence into him being the starter would be, but he has made plays this preseason. I do think that he genuinely deserves a shot, but for whatever reason Fort is not trusted. It could be the mental aspect, much like Shamarko Thomas, or they genuinely believed that Sean Spence was better (he was not), but I doubt Fort will win the job simply from his run defense and lack of coaching confidence in him.
Matthew Thomas, however, is a very different story. The UDFA out of Florida State has been one of the top performers on the defense this preseason and got reps with second team against the Packers and took away snaps from Matakevich. Note, I have no problem with that, as I believe Matakevich should be the last ILB on the depth chart. Yet, Thomas has looked good in both run defense and coverage, but he has a lot of lumps to work out no doubt. His instincts, while improved, are not there yet. He can not correctly read a play action yet, and that will hurt him eventually, but he has been a very sure tackler.
Overall, I think the Steelers will give the job to Bostic, but riding out the lumps with Thomas might be a better idea. There is also the off chance that someone from outside the organization comes in and starts, very much like Joe Haden last season.
Prediction: Jon Bostic
Last Three Defensive Backs
Participants: Marcus Allen, Malik Golden, Jordan Dangerfield, Nat Berhe, Brian Allen, Coty Sensabaugh
This is a big mess, because all of these guys, aside of Berhe, are truly quality DB in their own ways. So, you can bet there might be one or two from this group that get the boot to the Practice Squad.
Brian Allen and Coty Sensabaugh both have had their up and down moments this preseason. Allen has covered Tight Ends extremely well and has made tremendous progress from a season ago. He, however, needs to be more physical on the line and in run defense. That has caused him to be beaten by quicker WRs and he became more of a non-factor in run defense. Sensabaugh has some very good coverage reps and some very bad ones. He has been burnt a few times, although not targeted, and he has completely blanketed guys often. It is the same Sensabaugh we saw last season during the regular season.
Nat Berhe, outside of special teams, has been rather lackluster this preseason. It is not just the touchdown where Matthew Thomas outran him, Berhe has been a liability in coverage and run defense the whole preseason and only offers special teams value, but Robert Golden was better than Berhe at that and with Marcus Tucker showing out on special teams, it is possible Berhe might be expendable with Tucker overtaking his role.
Marcus Allen needs to get on the field. We have not seen him much at all and the game against the Titans will be key to see if he finds himself on the Practice Squad or on the 53-man roster.
Malik Golden and Jordan Dangerfield are interesting options. Dangerfield and Golden have both played well. Golden is the only true FS on the roster and that in its own right could push him onto the 53-man roster since they absolutely need that. Golden has been terrific in coverage, but his tackling and run defense have been absolutely terrible. Dangerfield has been solid in all areas and due to his past experience, could find himself on the roster due to it. Dangerfield is a perfect fifth safety if they wanted one because he can play both up high or in the box and does it at an adequate level.
Prediction: Brian Allen, Marcus Allen, Jordan Dangerfield
Participants: Justin Hunter, Marcus Tucker, Damoun Patterson
Justin Hunter might feel his roster spot slipping from him, and fast. He has done little to nothing in both the receiving game and special teams. The coaching staff apparently likes him, but with him becoming invisible the whole preseason, one must wonder if his time is running out to prove he should be on the roster over both of the hungry, young guys.
Marcus Tucker might not be doing much in the receiving game, but he still has done more than Hunter in that area. I love Tucker’s story and how hard he plays on every play. When there are runs, Tucker blocks for the whole play, and puts his whole body into every play. However, Tucker has been fantastic on special teams as a whole and continues to show that he deserves a spot on the roster just for that alone.
Patterson had a terrific game against the Eagles but disappeared when facing the Packers. As it stands now, it is one game, but it should also stand that Patterson has an incredibly versatile of weapons to his arsenal. If he has good receiving games in these last two games, and continues to showing his special teams prowess, much like he did against the Eagles, Patterson has a shot to make the roster. The one thing he can not afford to do is disappear, that will only land him on a practice squad.
Prediction: Marcus Tucker