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Ulysees Gilbert looks great, but will he see the field in 2020?

The young inside linebacker has the opportunity to carve out snaps in this defense.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers-Training Camp Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Ulysees Gilbert III looked great in the 2019 preseason, one where he showed up in run defense and coverage, even to the point of covering wide receivers in the slot, where he did well. The Steelers were 5 deep at inside linebacker, and it took that preseason for Ulysees Gilbert to make the roster. Once he was on the roster he pulled off another impressive feat, playing the highest percentage of special teams snaps of any Steeler since 2012 when they started tracking snap data.

Gilbert played more than 80% of special teams snaps until he was injured in week 5, more than Tyler Matakevich, Anthony Chickillo, Robert Golden, Ryan Mundy, Terrence Garvin, Vince Williams or Roosevelt Nix ever played. He did that on a team full of special team stalwarts, reminding me of the days when fans knew the Steelers had found a good linebacker when they excelled on special teams early in their career.

With injury ending his season in week 5, Gilbert is a bit of a wild card, even coach Tomlin has downplayed him, telling the media “I wouldn’t necessarily characterize him (Gilbert) as a second year player, because he missed so much time in year one,” right before sending Gilbert out to face the media, something that is traditionally a sign that a player had an excellent day.

Ulysees Gilbert was, of course, asked about Coach Tomlin’s statement, and what he was able to learn while he was hurt.

I grasped a lot, because I had a lot of good veteran guys in front of me that helped me along the way. Guys like Mark Barron, Tyler Matakevich, even some of the other guys in the linebacker room like Vince Williams. With special teams I gained a lot of knowledge and was able to play in a couple games and got some great game opportunities in ways of being a rookie as well as learning behind guys like Vince Williams and Mark Barron. I was watching how those guys play, knowing they are veterans, listen to everything they say in the meeting rooms as well as on the field.

A lot of the change from year one to year two in a player’s career is how they approach the job aspect of the game, the daily grind, the attention to detail, habits in training, practicing and film rooms that help a player get the most out of the work they put in. Those kind of lessons are learned off the field, and Gilbert had the opportunity to learn those things, even while he was unable to gain more on-field experience.

It may already be paying off, too. In practice on Tuesday, Gilbert came away with the ball in a running backs vs linebackers passing drill. Ulysees Gilbert explained how he got the ball in his press conference.

Being patient, watching his hands, having late hands myself and trying to break up the ball. At the end of the day, he bumbled it a bit and I was lucky enough to get my hands on it and just bring it in. It was just a pretty good play. It’s something my coach tries to teach us, late hands and being patient.

The late hands comment should remind you of this Devin Bush interception from the week 5 match-up with the Baltimore Ravens.

Watching the receivers hands, coming in late, taking the ball away.

Devin Bush was a target of offenses the first 5 weeks of the season, as teams looked to get him matched up on tight ends and exploit his height and youth. They stopped after this play, when Bush showed he had the technique to counter height advantages.

If Ulysees Gilbert is making these plays, then he is likely to get some snaps on defense in situations where they need a more athletic linebacker in coverage on a tight end or running back. There aren’t likely to be a lot of those snaps, as Devin Bush is in line to take most of the open snaps, and Vince Williams taking over more as well, but if there are games where the Steelers need a linebacker with athleticism and better man cover skills than Vince Williams offers, Ulysees Gilbert is working to be the guy who earns those snaps.

Week 1 should be an interesting match up for the Steelers, with Saquon Barkley and Evan Engram, the Giants have a dynamic threat in the passing game at both tight end and rinning back. How the Steelers match up personnel with those threats will be one of the most important parts of the game plan. While Vince Williams is in line to be the nickle linebacker with Devin Bush this season, it is not ideal to say the least to ask Vince Williams to cover either Barkley or Engram in man defense. So while it is easy to think the Steelers can give Ulysees Gilbert time to get his feet under him, there isn’t much time before the Steelers have to answer for how they will defend teams with dynamic receiving threats at both the running back and tight end positions.