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Steelers-by-position: ILBs

Another in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency on March 16.

Marcus Allen, Devin Bush, Ulysees Gilbert III, Buddy Johnson, Joe Schobert, Robert Spillane
(Free Agent Scorecard: 2 restricted – Marcus Allen, Robert Spillane)

On Thursday, Aug. 12, the Steelers were in Philadelphia facing the Eagles in the early stages of the 2021 preseason, yet there were some goings-on off the field that at the time seemed more significant. While the Steelers were defeating the Eagles, 24-16, to raise their preseason record to 2-0, the personnel department was finalizing a trade with Jacksonville to bring inside linebacker Joe Schobert to Pittsburgh in exchange for a sixth-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. Some 48 hours later, Coach Mike Tomlin said the proposed trade "didn't take us long to consider."

"We're familiar with him," continued Tomlin during a media session following the day's training camp practice. "Former AFC North guy, been highly productive in every circumstance that he's been in. He's a sideline-to-sideline tackler, he's good in coverage, he has coverage production in terms of interceptions, he has sack production. He plays a well-rounded game, and so we're excited about infusing him into what we do."

And so, Schobert was added to a group that included former No. 1 pick Devin Bush, Robert Spillane, Ulysees Gilbert, Marcus Allen, and rookie Buddy Johnson. No big run-thumpers, but a lot of athletes who could cover a lot of ground and make tackles sideline-to-sideline vs. the run as well as possessing sufficient athletic ability in space to be competitive in matchups in coverage when the opponent opted to pass. There wouldn't have to be wholesale changes for every down-and-distance, for every sub-package defense, because this group seemed to offer enough of a smorgasbord of skills to allow the defense to be adaptable without always having to change personnel groups.

But the reality didn't turn out to match the theory. Some of the root causes for that disconnect likely can be traced to injuries – the process of Bush getting back to being an every-down, all-situations inside linebacker less than 10 full months after tearing an ACL wasn't as smooth a process as hoped; Spillane missed the opener with an injured shin and then a couple of games associated with a positive test for COVID later in the year; Schobert was trying to learn a new system and become accustomed to meshing with new teammates without the benefit of an offseason program and the learning portion of training camp; and Gilbert, Allen, and Johnson were having reps naturally regulated by a calendar that was telling the Steelers the start of the regular season was just a fortnight away.

On top of it all, maybe the most significant development was what was going on right in front of the inside linebackers every time they lined up for a snap. With no Tyson Alualu (ankle) and no Stephon Tuitt (knee), Bush went from a guy used to relying on athletic ability to get himself to the football to someone having to fend off 330-pound guards to get himself to the football. Throw in bad fits in the run defense and too much inconsistent tackling and too many losses in the one-on-one individual matchups that are a significant barometer in every game, and the run defense was the NFL's worst.

The 146.1 yards per game and the 5.0 average per carry allowed by the Steelers defense both ranked last in an NFL where the AVERAGE run defense statistically allowed 115.2 yards per game and 4.3 per carry. And the visual was vivid proof that those numbers had been earned.

A couple of the more startling statistics regarding the Steelers run defense are these: Over the last five regular season games, the Steelers allowed opponents to rush for over 200 yards three times; and over that same five-game span opponents averaged over 6.0 per attempt twice.

If a 3-4 defense is working the way it's designed, the inside linebackers are able to roam somewhat freely and make tackles. In 2021, the Steelers leading tackler was Minkah Fitzpatrick, a free safety generally deployed in the deep middle of the field. Fitzpatrick finished with 124 tackles; No. 2 on the list was Schobert with 112.

At one point last season, this unit looked to be one of the best, deepest, most versatile groups of inside linebackers in the NFL. And there were other times during the same season when this unit looked to be the polar opposite of that. The task for this offseason is for the Steelers to determine which of those is the accurate portrayal and then address the unit accordingly.

What cannot be debated is that the Steelers run defense has to improve, and to a rather significant degree. It wouldn't be fair or accurate to lay all of the responsibility for that at the feet of the inside linebackers, but it would be naïve to believe this unit is fine as it is.
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