Much of what happened during the just-completed Steelers’ preseason was positive and hopeful heading into the 2018 regular season this coming weekend. In particular, the Steelers’ early-round draft picks were mostly impressive — including a pair of great-looking young quarterbacks, Joshua Dobbs and Mason Rudolph, who earned spots on the 53-man roster. The Black-and-gold also signed yet another strong, athletic wide receiver in James Washington, plus two undrafted, free-agent linebackers (Matthew Thomas and Ola Adeniyi) who’ve demonstrated unforeseen promise.
But while it seems a foregone conclusion the Steelers will enter the 2018 regular season chock-full of offensive firepower, what’s less certain is whether the Black-and-gold have effectively addressed defensive shortcomings which ultimately cost them the chance to advance in last-season’s playoffs. While the Steelers certainly scored enough points to beat Jacksonville last January, their Swiss-cheese defense was manhandled by the Jaguars throughout the game, with linebacker play being one of the notable culprits.
Young linebackers Thomas and Adeniyi were impressive in the preseason games, but Adeniyi was just placed on IR and it remains to be seen whether Thomas, in addition to ex-Colt Jon Bostic, will represent a significant upgrade to the Steelers’ late-2017 linebacker corps. The loss of Ryan Shazier’s exceptional speed and athleticism at ILB was quite noticeable during the latter stage of last season — particularly when the Steelers faced the Jaguars’ superstar RB Leonard Fournette, who rushed for 109 yards on 25 carries (4.4-yard average) and three TDs in Jacksonville’s 45-42 victory at Heinz Field.
As they prepare for Opening Day in Cleveland, the harsh reality facing the Steelers is that, even in a playoff game where Ben Roethlisberger turned in one of his better performances as a pro — completing 37 passes for 469 yards — it wasn’t enough to overcome a porous defense that put up scant resistance to the Jaguars’ offensive attack. And given the wealth of outstanding, young RBs and Tight Ends in the NFL these days, it’s difficult to compete without excellence pervading your linebacker unit.
But question marks still abound regarding the overall play of OLB Bud Dupree, and 2018 could be a make-or-break year for No. 48. As for Bostic, we can hardly judge his ultimate value to this defense based on what we’ve seen from him during the preseason. Only when he’s going head-to-head against the league’s best OLs, RBs and TEs will we know whether the former second-round pick (50th overall selection in 2013) can get the job done consistently. Furthermore, if Bostic doesn’t make the grade, then the rookie Thomas will be getting his trial-by-fire, facing offensive players far better than any he’s ever dealt with before. At that point, Thomas would also be in a sink-or-swim situation, and his performance in the recently-concluded preseason won’t mean a thing.
While I’d like nothing better than to be proven wrong in this case, I don’t see Bostic as the answer to our needs at ILB, and L.J. Fort — at age 28 — has never been more than a depth player at the position. As for the rookie Thomas, it’s going to take at least a couple of years before he masters his position at the level required for a starting NFL linebacker. So in my book, this means the Steelers still need more immediate help at ILB, and it doesn’t appear they’ve done much more than to put window dressing over some significant issues that continue to exist at this position.
For this reason, I’d say the one 11th-hour personnel move which would be least surprising would have the Steelers signing an experienced, veteran ILB if the opportunity presents itself. Although they might decide to wait until after the upcoming game with the Browns to get a better idea of what they’ve actually got at ILB, I don’t see Mike Tomlin standing pat with a unit which continues to be gashed by the ground game, along with persistent pass-coverage issues.
It’s only a hunch, but I’ve got a feeling that, when the film reviews are done this month in the wake of the early games of the season, we might hear more complaints about the linebacker play than any other aspect of this team. Despite some of the wishful thinking, it seems evident that the Steelers still are a couple of bricks shy in that department.