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Markus Golden is the depth piece the Steelers have been seeking at outside linebacker

The Pittsburgh Steelers may have finally addressed the OLB3 spot on the roster for the 2023 season.

New England Patriots v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

The Steelers signed free agent Markus Golden last week, presumably to be the primary backup to T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith at the outside linebacker position.

Golden is 32 years old and a veteran of eight seasons in the league. He has 47 sacks for his career, including 11 in 2021. Last season, as a member of the Arizona Cardinals, he registered 48 tackles and 2.5 sacks while participating in 70% of the defensive snaps. Barring injury to Watt or Highsmith, that’s far more than Pittsburgh will need him to play.

For this film room, I’ve pulled clips from Arizona’s Week 8 game against Minnesota. I chose that game because it was the one in which Golden played the largest percentage of snaps and would provide the best look at his overall repertoire. As we’ll see, Golden has holes in his game that limit his productivity. But he’s also solid enough so that, in a limited role, he should be an ideal addition for the Steelers.

Arizona vs. Minnesota — Week 8

This game resulted in a 34-26 win for the Vikings. Golden played 83% of the defensive snaps, registering four tackles, two quarterback hits and a tackle-for-loss. It was an uneven performance that showcased both his limitations and his strengths.

Let’s start with the limitations. In the clip below, Golden (#44) is aligned on the left edge of the defense. He takes an outside path on his rush and tries to use an upward strike to lift the arms of the blocker to create separation. It’s a good move by Golden, and it does lift the arms of the tackle. But Golden isn’t quick enough to convert that into pressure. He tries to dip-and-rip around the block but can’t execute the maneuver in time. The tackle recovers and rides him up the field, leaving an escape route for quarterback Kirk Cousins. Golden then goes into chase mode, where he’s not fast enough to track Cousins down. Cousins ultimately outruns all of Arizona’s pursuit and dives into the end zone to score:

This play demonstrates what I see as Golden’s biggest limitation: his quickness and foot speed. While Golden possesses sound technique, uses his hands well and is physical at the point of attack, his movements are deliberate and he’s often slow to close or react.

We see this again in the following clip. Golden is aligned on the edge to the left of the offense, just outside Minnesota’s star tackle Christian Darrisaw (71). Arizona runs a “long stick” stunt, where Golden comes from outside the tackle all the way down to the A-gap between the guard and center. The idea of this stunt is to pull the center to the right with a line game on that side of the ball, and to pull the guard on Golden’s side to the left by having the 5-technique penetrate the B-gap. This should create a seam between the guard and center.

Golden, however, isn’t quick enough to get there. The guard (72) deftly trades the 5-tech back to Darrisaw, then slides inside to pick up Golden:

For this stunt to work, Golden needs to move laterally more quickly, then dip his right shoulder, get skinny and rip through the guard as he penetrates. At this point in his career, he seems to lack the necessary burst to do it.

Golden is also a little slow to disengage from his block against the run. Here he is on the left side of Minnesota’s formation against tight end Irv Smith (84). Smith is a modest 6’2-240 pounds, and you’d like to see Golden shed him more quickly and fall back faster to track the running back. He ends up making the tackle, but he’s 10 yards down the field when he does so. Again, faster recognition and reaction are required for this to be a sounder play:

Here’s one more example of how you’d like to see Golden play a little faster. Below, Golden is aligned on the right edge of the offensive formation. Minnesota runs bootleg action out of the I-formation, with the fullback coming at Golden and cut-blocking him. Golden appears to see it at the last second, and he shoots his hands accordingly. But he’s late to react, and his legs are stiff, and he can’t sink his hips quickly enough to keep the fullback off of him. Golden goes to the ground, gives up containment, and Cousins escapes outside:

At the end of the play, Golden seems to look to the sideline to give the ubiquitous “My bad” signal by tapping his chest. It’s not that Golden doesn’t see the game. It’s that he doesn’t see it fast enough.

All of that said. Golden has plenty of strengths that should make him a valuable asset for the Steelers. He’s a smart player with experience, which means he can do more than simply come off the edge. Below, he is lined up to the far left of the frame. Arizona has six players at the line, suggesting some sort of blitz. At the snap, Golden bails, dropping into the middle of the field to sniff out any crossers. He smartly swivels his head to locate a receiver then jumps him to take away Cousins' primary read. This forces a hurried downfield throw that results in an incompletion:

Also, when Golden plays with a good base and good leverage, he is powerful and sudden. Watch him here bully tight end Johnny Mundt (86) by driving him down the line of scrimmage before disengaging to get to the ball-carrier. Golden’s hands are excellent, and when he combines them with active feet, good things occur:

This is true for his pass rush as well. Golden had 20 quarterback hits last season, which is the same amount as Highsmith. Those hits didn’t result in many sacks, but Golden didn’t have much help on an Arizona defense that produced just 36 on the season. With a playing partner like Watt or Highsmith, being in the vicinity of the quarterback when he is forced to move because of pressure from the opposite edge is often enough to produce a sack.

Here, Golden uses that combination of good hands and active feet to force a throw-away. Watch him work the up-and-under move before ripping through the right tackle and getting a piece of Cousins. This is the type of effort and result Steelers fans should expect from Golden given the limited reps he’ll likely be asked to play.

Here’s one more. Golden, lined up on the left hash over top of Smith, gets good pressure with an outstanding bull rush. He plays through the chip block from Smith, then sinks his hips and wins inside leverage with a two-hand strike to the tackle’s chest. This allows him to drive the tackle into Cousins' lap, which forces a weak throw to the flat:

Golden packs 260 pounds on his 6’3 frame, with a strong lower body and “heavy hands.” That’s an expression coaches use to describe a player who strikes with great force. You can see that force in the way Golden knocks the tackle back with his initial blow. While Golden is not on the same level as an overall player, he fits the mold of powerful edge defenders the Steelers have employed over the years like James Harrison, Lamar Woodley and Highsmith.

So, what should Steelers fans expect from Golden this season? Hopefully, not much. That would mean both Watt and Highsmith remain healthy, which is ideal. It’s likely one or the other will go down for a bit, however, in which case Golden will have to step in. Last season, when Watt missed seven games with a pectoral injury, Malik Reed took his place. Reed played around 60% of the overall snaps in that span, or slightly less than Golden averaged in Arizona. Over that time, Reed amassed just 17 total tackles, four quarterback hits, one tackle-for-loss and one sack. That’s pretty meager production. Should Golden be thrust into a similar role, it’s realistic to expect more.

Otherwise, Golden should be a solid role player who can spell either starter. His presence lessens the need for the Steelers to rush 4th Round draft pick Nick Herbig into duty. It also provides them the depth piece at outside linebacker for whom the Steelers have been seeking. Two years ago, they added Melvin Ingram as their #3. But Ingram wasn’t content in that role and eventually forced a trade. Last season, it was Reed, who ultimately wasn’t up to the job. Golden should hit the sweet spot between those two. He won’t expect to start, like Ingram did, and he should provide better output than Reed if pressed in to service.

Golden represents another smart signing by Omar Khan, who continues to strengthen the roster by signing for depth, versatility and experience. All that seems left for Khan to do now is add a similar piece at inside linebacker. With the way this off-season has transpired, expect news of that transaction any day now,