Another in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency on March 14.
INSIDE LINEBACKERS – (7)
L.J. Fort, Matt Galambos, Keith Kelsey, Tyler Matakevich, Ryan Shazier, Sean Spence, Vince Williams
(Free Agent Scorecard: 1; 1 unrestricted – Sean Spence)
A LAST LOOK AT 2017
Everything changed, absolutely everything, with 11:26 remaining in the first quarter of the Dec. 4 game against the Bengals in Cincinnati. That was when Ryan Shazier sustained a severe spinal injury that changed his life and dealt a blow to the Steelers defense, which it wasn't able to overcome through the rest of the regular season and the playoff loss to Jacksonville.
It's difficult, near impossible, to detail specifically how Shazier's injury and subsequent absence during those critical weeks impacted the defense beyond the obvious "it wasn't as good," but there can be no argument that the impact was both significant and negative. Compounding that issue, albeit in a less publicized way, was the injury to Tyler Matakevich a short time after he was inserted into the lineup to replace Shazier in the same game against the Bengals.
What had developed over the course of training camp and the preseason was a depth chart where rather than have backups at each of the two inside linebacker spots, Coach Mike Tomlin had gone instead for a system where there were the starters and then the No. 3 inside linebacker. The No. 3 inside linebacker was the first guy off the bench in the event of an injury to either of the two starters, and the player who clearly had established himself as No. 3 was Matakevich.
Matakevich had a shoulder injury that allowed him to play special teams but prevented him from doing the things necessary to be what the Steelers needed him to be as an inside linebacker. Less than 48 hours later, Sean Spence had been summoned off his couch, and the Steelers went about the task of filling the kind of hole that sunk the Titanic.
What resulted had Vince Williams becoming what Shazier had been in terms of the play-caller and the receiver of information from the sideline, and Spence and L.J. Fort were utilized based on situations to try to handle his work after the ball was snapped. Try as they might, the individuals and the unit as a whole were unable to compensate, and those who thought that could be possible were delusional.
With General Manager Kevin Colbert having said at the NFL Scouting Combine that Shazier would not play in 2018, the only point in re-living the parts of the 2017 season that included him in the middle of the Steelers defense would be to reminisce about what will be missed as the team transitions into 2018. Without Shazier, the Steelers defense isn't good enough, or at least it wasn't over the final five games of the 2017 season.
ONE STAT THAT STANDS OUT
In 2017, Vince Williams finished second on the team with eight sacks. In the 26 seasons since Chuck Noll retired on Dec. 26, 1991, inside linebackers have finished in the top two on the team in sacks just four times. In 2001, Kendrell Bell finished second on the team with nine; in 2007, James Farrior finished second on the team with 6.5; in 2012, Lawrence Timmons led the team with six; and in 2017, Williams finished second behind Cam Heyward with eight.
A LOOK TO 2018
One year ago, the Steelers pursued free agent Dont'a Hightower with the idea of pairing him with Shazier in the starting lineup, but their salary cap situation in the immediate aftermath of placing the franchise tag on Le'Veon Bell will preclude them from attempting something similar with a marquee free agent this offseason. Even if the Steelers were so inclined, the players expected to become available at 4 p.m. on March 14 don't include anyone with Hightower's skill-set and past production in the NFL.
Matakevich has had surgery on the shoulder that prevented him from lining up in Shazier's spot and should be back in the mix when training camp rolls around in late July, but it wouldn't be fair to him to expect him to step in and do the things Shazier was doing for the unit. Some fans are itching for the team to bring back Lawrence Timmons, who is rumored to be on the way out in Miami, but Timmons had turned into a liability in coverage in 2016 and it would be foolish to believe he had improved in that area as he has aged two more years.
The Steelers are going to require an infusion of talent here even to begin to make up for the loss of Shazier, and a more reasonable approach to this might be to reassign some other players to take on bits of Shazier's responsibilities because dumping the whole job description on a free agent the team could afford to sign or whichever player could be had with the 28th overall pick in the draft doesn't appear to be a sound strategy.
At this stage of the offseason, it appears as though the Steelers' two primary needs heading into free agency and then the draft are at safety and inside linebacker, and with their salary cap situation being what it is, it wouldn't be all that surprising to see them use their first four draft picks on two of each.