Labriola On

Labriola on how Bostic, Burnett fit

Ready or not, here it comes:

  • They didn't sign the next Ryan Shazier. And they didn't sign the next Troy Polamalu.
  • As expected, the Steelers sat out the initial frenzy of this particular free agency period, because the cost of doing business during the 48-hour legal tampering period and then throughout the opening weekend far exceeded their available cap space.
  • And as should have been expected, when the Steelers did make their opening moves, the players they added weren't exactly household names, but they both have a chance to be part of the answers to some of the questions hovering over the team this offseason.
  • Chronologically, the signings were inside linebacker Jon Bostic and safety Morgan Burnett. Bostic, 6-foot-1, 246 pounds, entered the league as a second-round draft picks by the Chicago Bears in 2013, and he will be 27 years old in May. He most recently was a starter for the Indianapolis Colts. Burnett, 6-1, 210, entered the league as a third-round pick of the Green Bay Packers, and he turned 29 in January.
  • That's the biographical information, but the more important things to know are how Bostic and Burnett can fit into what the Steelers want to do on defense and how they might be able to help.
  • Bostic entered the league with the Bears, but after missing the 2016 season with a foot injury, he signed a one-year deal with the Colts, and his lone season in Indianapolis ended with a knee injury in Week 15 that landed him on injured reserve. But in between Bostic was leading the team in tackles.
  • While he doesn't have the combination of speed and power that makes Shazier a generational talent at the inside linebacker position, Bostic has a good understanding of what it takes to be good against the run. He runs to the ball and he is known as a guy who gets to the ball in a bad mood. He understands gaps and where he needs to be, and he also understands when it's the proper time to be aggressive and attack the runner, and when it's better to take on a blocker to prevent the creation of gashes in the defense.
  • Bostic isn't capable of giving the Steelers the things they got from Shazier when the opposing offense decides to throw the ball, but if he had been on the team back in January the Jaguars wouldn't have had as much success running the football – either in the consistency with which they ran it, or with generating the big plays they got from it.
  • Observers could tend to view Bostic as nothing but another Vince Williams, and it's true that the two players have some of the same qualities. Williams also is a downhill inside linebacker who arrives at the man with the football in a bad mood, but it's also fair to believe Bostic is better in the measurables department. There are reasons why Bostic was a second-round pick and Williams was a sixth-round pick, and that disparity often is the result of size, speed, and agility.
  • Bostic was a three-down linebacker last year with the Colts, but that's to be determined whether he can fill that role here, most likely by a combination of what the Steelers can get out of the draft and also by what Bostic shows them at Saint Vincent College.
  • And as for the areas in which Bostic and Williams are the same kinds of players, having two solid-against-the-run inside linebackers with bad attitudes should prevent opponents from just lining up and physically pounding the defense with their running game.
  • If Bostic's pairing with Williams puts an end to that, signing him was worth it. But I have a feeling Bostic, while certainly not Shazier-esque in terms of a multiple skill-set, will turn out to be something more than a one-trick pony.
  • Just as Bostic could be described as an upgrade over Sean Spence, Morgan Burnett has been described as a better version of Mike Mitchell.
  • Neither Mitchell nor Burnett could be described as make-plays-on-the-ball safeties. Mitchell had 10 interceptions in 137 career games, and Burnett has nine interceptions in 102 career games.
  • One of the issues that hampered Mitchell during his time in Pittsburgh were some soft tissue injuries, including a groin injury he sustained before his first training camp with the team that prevented him from getting off to a quick start. Burnett has been plagued by similar problems. Burnett missed two games last season with an injured hamstring, and then he missed two games with a groin injury sustained in his first game back from the hamstring injury.
  • Burnett also missed one game in 2016 and five games in 2015 with calf injuries, and therefore has played the full 16 games in only two of his eight NFL seasons so far.
  • But where Burnett has excelled is in an area that clearly was a deficiency for the Steelers in 2017: tackling. According to one evaluation, Burnett missed only two tackles in 2017, and having some certainty there should prevent those 6-to-8-yard runs from becoming 15-plus-yard runs. That might not sound like a big deal, but the Steelers allowed 18 runs of 15-plus yards last season, and 10 of those 18 went for 20-or-more yards.
  • Based on what Steelers President Art Rooney II said over a month ago: "We need to be more consistent on both sides of the ball. Last year there were some games where we were kind of soft against the run, and that's not Steelers football. We have to get stronger against the run so we can put our defense in position to get after the quarterback" …
  • … And what General Manager Kevin Colbert said at the NFL Combine at the end of February: "It was almost like were we under-aggressive against the run and overaggressive against the pass" …
  • … It really isn't much of a surprise to see the Steelers committing their somewhat limited free agent resources to correcting that weakness.
  • Another problem with the defense last season came in the number of mental mistakes made in the secondary that led to big plays in the passing game. The Steelers allowed 13 pass plays of 40-or-more yards, 32 pass plays of 25-or-more yards, and in many of those instances the culprit was some combination of miscommunication and blown assignments.
  • In Green Bay, Burnett was credited with being the quarterback of the secondary, and maybe he also was that for the entire defense because he was the player chosen to receive the calls from the sideline and then get everyone on the field on the same page to execute what had been called.
  • Burnett said the safety positions in Green Bay were interchangeable and that he played both strong safety and free safety during his time there. This versatility will allow the Steelers to determine whether Sean Davis' best position as he enters his third NFL season is strong safety or free safety and then plug in Burnett to handle the other spot.
  • One last point pertaining to this phase of free agency, and it has to do with Tyrann Mathieu. Once the Arizona Cardinals decided the 5-8, 186-pound safety wasn't worth the remainder of the five-year, $62.5 million contract they gave him in August 2016 and released him, he became the apple of Steelers Nation's eye.
  • In the subsequent pleas from fans and the challenges from the media directed at the Steelers to sign Mathieu, one issue largely was ignored. Forgetting that the Steelers had approximately $6.5 million in cap space and Mathieu was getting offers with cap numbers exceeding that, the sentiment from these corners was that the Steelers should do what was necessary to get this deal done.
  • What was largely being overlooked by the advocates of signing Mathieu was an injury history much more alarming than Bostic's and Burnett's combined.
  • In December 2013, Mathieu tore both the ACL and LCL in his left knee, which required major reconstructive surgery. Then in December 2015, he tore the ACL in his right knee, which meant more major surgery. And in 2016, Mathieu missed about half of the season with a shoulder injury that landed him on the injured reserve list for the third time in a four-year span. All of this happening to a slight-bodied man before he hit his 26th birthday in a violent sport made him too much of a medical risk for the money he was seeking in a new contract.
  • No, the Steelers didn't find the next Shazier and/or Polamalu in free agency, but the guys they did find and sign can make them a better team in 2018 than they were at the end of 2017.
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