Creating content for a year around Steelers website is seldom as easy as it might appear.
Sometimes the words necessary to share your vision flows effortlessly from your fingertips. The creative connection at these moments feels similar to being in the zone, a fascinating phenomenon that many accomplished athletes will recall and comprehend. Nothing else like it in life. Pure adrenaline mixed with calming fulfillment.
Then there is the opposite end of the spectrum. Those frustrating moments when you lack inspiration, or suffer from a severe case of writer's block. Every sentence feels like a chore, and you struggle to finish a constructive thought.
Many times during the latter scenario I will not be satisfied with the direction the article is going, and I will simply delete the mess and start anew. Blow it up and recommit to the original vision.
That's exactly what the Steelers decided to do with their underperforming inside linebacker depth chart this offseason. Out with the old, and in with the new. The only problem with that game plan is the undeniable fact that we have seen this approach before at the position, at least to a lesser degree.
It seems like the Steelers have brought in at least one past his prime retread at the position every offseason for years, essentially since Ryan Shazier's career ending injury.
I will spare us all another trip down memory lane, but the list of names who have flamed out in spectacular fashion for the Steelers is truly troubling and pathetic.
The main difference in this offseason and those from the not so distant past is more about the quantity than the quality. Hopefully the quality has been substantially upgraded, but we won't know for certain until the newcomers prove themselves on the field during the regular season. However, we already know that the quantity has changed, because Mark Robinson is the only holdover from the 2022 depth chart.
Omar Khan and company were determined to not repeat past mistakes. With multiple positions in need of an upgrade, the Steelers committed to not overspending at the position.
Similar to the approach taken with the offensive line additions last offseason, the Steelers were looking for affordable options with a proven pedigree. Players with extensive experience, but still young enough to grow with an ascending roster.
The Steelers were also looking for leadership qualities, and brought in two former team captains. Lastly, the Steelers wanted relentless warriors, rather than casual bystanders. At first glance, I would say mission accomplished.
Cole Holcomb is arguably the most important addition to the Steelers defense this offseason. If Holcomb is as good as advertised, then the Steelers interior defense should be substantially more imposing in 2023.
Holcomb lacks ideal length for an off ball linebacker, but he packs quite the wallop in his 6'1" and 240lbs frame. Holcomb possesses the speed and explosiveness the Steelers covet at the Mack position, evidenced by his 4.51 forty and 11' broad jump. His 1.59 10 yard split was also exceptional, showcasing his short area quickness.
As I mentioned earlier in the article, Holcomb's leadership resulted in him being named a team captain with Washington. He willingly wears the green dot for his defense, accepting the communication and pre-snap responsibilities that come with it. Holcomb doesn't suffer from the paralysis of over analysis that afflicts many others entrusted with the responsibility.
The Steelers then signed another heat seeking missile in free agent Elandon Roberts. Like Holcomb, Roberts lacks ideal length, but is relentlessly physical at 5'11" and 238 lbs. Roberts is the classic Buck linebacker in the Steelers base 3-4, in the mold of recently retired Vince Williams. He possesses an old school mindset of see what you hit, hurt what you see.
Roberts is another former team captain, with excellent leadership skills, but he brings something more to the equation. At 29 years of age, he brings plenty of experience to the ILB meeting room. Roberts is a two time Super Bowl champion with the New England Patriots, so he can speak from experience about what it takes to reach the pinnacle of the sport, an accomplishment shared by nobody else currently on the Steelers defensive roster.
Roberts also appears to be the perfect mentor for his younger colleagues, particularly Mark Robinson. Roberts is a former sixth round selection who has carved out a respectable career in spite of less than ideal physical and testing measurables. Roberts knows exactly who he is, both his own strengths and weaknesses. He works hard to accentuate the positives, and minimize the negatives. His success story should be encouraging for the intriguing young Robinson.
Speaking of Mark Robinson, the second year seventh round project suddenly finds himself in a most enviable position, the most experienced player in regards to the Steelers schemes on the depth chart, essentially because he is the only holdover who survived the position purge.
Robinson is incredibly raw for the position, after only making the position switch from running back to inside linebacker prior to his senior season at Ole Miss. As expected, he often looked like a lost ball in high weeds during his pass coverage attempts as a rookie. Thankfully the Steelers kept those hard to watch moments to the bare minimum in 2022. I feel certain he has been working hard to improve his technique and recognition this offseason, and he has already registered an interception of Kenny Pickett on his sophomore OTA resume. Compared to last season, I would definitely consider that progress.
What sets Robinson apart from his colleagues at the moment in my opinion is his natural instincts at the position, achieved in part from his years of running back experience. The two positions mirror each other, directing across the line of scrimmage. Robinson utilizes the same vision he needed to locate open lanes as a running back, but now he uses it to locate and fill those running lanes. He possesses superior strength and contact balance, which he once used to break tackles for extra yardage, but now relies on to disengage from blockers prior to taking down the ball carrier.
Mike Tomlin obviously got tired of watching the Charmin soft middle of his defense, and decided to do something about it. He has shared that he would much rather say Whoa than Sic 'em. With this new group of old school thumpers, that should no longer be an issue.
In conclusion, I truly believe that the Steelers have taken significant strides towards addressing their lack of physicality at the off ball positions. That's the good news. The less than ideal news revolves around the fact that nobody really knows how the Steelers current collection of inside linebacker talent will hold up in pass coverage.
I believe the trio possesses the necessary intelligence, intensity, and natural football instincts needed to improve to a respectable level in pass coverage, but the coaching staff will have their hands full during training camp. Khan may decide to bring in an affordable coverage linebacker with experience, if the opportunity presents itself. Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin may decide to run more three safety sets, depending on weekly matchups. Keanu Neal is already a box safety who plays like an off ball linebacker.
Regardless of how the remainder of the offseason plays out, it is hard for me to imagine a scenario where the Steelers inside linebackers aren't substantially improved from last season, when the position provided the Steelers defense zero splash plays. That's actually rather hard to do, actually. Even a blind squirrel stumbles upon a nut from time to time. You would think that a fortuitous bounce would have found an unsuspecting Steelers inside linebacker casually minding his own business at one time or another, but it never did.
One things for sure. The Steelers new inside linebackers won't be waiting to absorb the action five yards downfield. These old school ballers will be imposing their will around the line of scrimmage whenever possible. I for one welcome the desperately needed change.