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Labriola on ILB depth, musical chairs

LATROBE, Pa. – Ready or not, here it comes:

  • It's an annual frustration that becomes a part of every NFL training camp. Injuries. Who's injured? How long are they unavailable because they're injured? What is the impact of that injury, first to the individual and then to the group? Who's there to fill in because of the injury?
  • The Steelers' final practice in pads, the final practice open to the public, is to be staged later today, and so the 2017 version of training camp here will be remembered as one that fit the pattern. The injury pattern, that is, with a bunch of guys missing a bunch of time and with Coach Mike Tomlin doing his darndest to avoid providing a lot of specific information about most of it.
  • One man's misfortune is another man's opportunity. That's a common theme that finds its way into most Tomlin answers to questions about injuries, and just because it's a cliché doesn't mean it isn't true.
  • This year's prime example is Tyler Matakevich.
  • Depth at inside linebacker had been a nagging issue for these Steelers throughout the offseason, what with Lawrence Timmons leaving for Miami as an unrestricted free agent and the team doing nothing to fortify the inside linebacker position during free agency or in the seven rounds of the draft.
  • Then came training camp, and shortly into it, first Vince Williams and then Ryan Shazier were injured, and the presumptive starters at inside linebacker ended up not getting any substantive work together during this camp, which thrust the team's depth at inside linebacker, or lack thereof, into the forefront. To make the point that Matakevich was up to the task is easy, and it became apparent over time to everyone who took in an afternoon practice.
  • Early in this camp, Williams was injured, and so Matakevich stepped into that spot and played alongside Shazier. Then after Williams returned and Shazier was injured, Matakevich stepped into that spot and played alongside Williams.
  • A seventh-round draft pick in 2016 from Temple, Matakevich entered the NFL with a reputation as a tackling machine, and his ability to sift through the traffic and find the guy with the football and then get that guy on the ground has been apparent all summer.
  • In a lot of ways, Matakevich is a similar player to the man who's now his coach – Jerry Olsavsky. And the Steelers got to Super Bowl XXX in 1995 when Olsavsky replaced the injured Chad Brown at inside linebacker.
  • Throughout camp, Matakevich held his own with the demands of inside linebacker vs. the run, and he seemed to improve in the drills that matched linebackers vs. tight ends or running backs vs. the pass. Matakevich isn't the dynamic presence that Shazier is, but few NFL inside linebackers are. But what he has become during this training camp is a viable option at the position for the Steelers.
  • "I think he has proven that, (he can play both inside linebacker spots), yes," said Tomlin about Matakevich. "Which is good, (because) we need him to. Oftentimes that is the case for the guy in that position though. Vince Williams was dual position capable when he was in that spot a year ago.  Tyler appears to be game to the task."
  • One of the issues about to take center stage shortly is one tied to the cut-down of the roster to 53 players. The deadline for that is 4 p.m. EDT on Saturday, Sept. 2, and the rule change adopted at the NFL Owners Meeting last March will have an immediate impact. I believe that impact will be most significant in terms of teams forming their practice squads.
  • Unlike previous years, this year there will be no cut-down from 90 to 75 after the third preseason game. Teams will be permitted to carry their 90-man rosters through the entire preseason, and then they have to get down to 53 players on Sept. 2.
  • Assuming all 32 teams are at 90 players when they play their preseason finales on Thursday, Aug. 31, that would mean 1,184 players will be waived or placed on one of the different reserve lists during a span of less than 48 hours.
  • That's quite a number to be processed by other teams hoping to find upgrades via the waiver wire, but it could turn out to be an advantage for teams hoping to re-sign some of their own cuts to their practice squads. A high stakes version of musical chairs, so to speak.
  • Teams can sign players to their practice squads only after they clear waivers, and with there being so many guys hitting the market all at once, and with only 24 hours to make decisions and put in claims, a lot of guys could slip through the cracks. By the time a team might get around to figuring out it's interested in one of the Steelers' cuts, as an example, that player already could have been signed to the practice squad.
  • And once a player is on a practice squad, a team looking to poach him would be committed to keeping him on the active roster for three straight weeks.
  • During the spring and the run-up to training camp, there seemed to be a rift between Ben Roethlisberger and Martavis Bryant. Each said/did some things the other didn't appreciate, or at least it seemed that way based on subsequent public comments. How real the resentment was or wasn't isn't known, nor does it seem to matter now in the least.
  • When asked recently what he sees in Bryant, Roethlisberger said, "A guy who has worked hard in the offseason. A guy who looks ready to go. A guy who still understands the offense and picks it up. A guy who is coming along quickly. He seems like a guy who cares about taking care of himself and cares about other people. He isn't about what other people think; it's about taking care of himself and being a good teammate."
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