Veteran inside linebackers starting to jell for Steelers

Out with the old and in with, well, the older.

But in the case of the Steelers and their rebuilt inside linebacker group, older and wiser was the way they chose to go when it came to remaking their inside linebacker group in the offseason.

In 27-year-old Cole Holcomb and 29-year-olds Elandon Roberts and Kwon Alexander, the Steelers valued the "been-there, done-that" experience head coach Mike Tomlin so often refers to when talking about players.

The NFL is a young man's game. But experience is something that cannot be overlooked, as well, especially at inside linebacker, where offensive coordinators regularly manipulate young inside linebackers and make them do their bidding.

In Holcomb, Roberts and Alexander, the Steelers felt the experience that trio brings to their defense is complimented by the fact all three still retain the athleticism that got them into the NFL from the start.

In this case, bringing in three starters was a great way to fill two spots.

And the Steelers (2-1) are effectively using all three through their first three games and will do so again Sunday when they play the Texans (1-2) at NRG Stadium.

"We have three starter-capable guys," said defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. "It keeps them fresh. It keeps them engaged, and I think it's working well. I like what all three of them are doing, and we just have got to keep them healthy and upright to the end of the season."

The rebuild began in the offseason when the Steelers signed Holcomb and Roberts within hours of each other in the opening salvo of free agency.

It continued in training camp with the addition of Alexander in late July a few days into training camp.

Alexander's addition completed the total makeover of the team's inside linebacker group, as only second-year pro Mark Robinson returned from last year's players at that position.

Thus far, the results have been positive.

Through the first three games, the inside linebacker group has averaged 18.3 tackles per game while recording five tackles for a loss, one pass defensed, two forced fumbles and a quarterback hit.

Last season, the Steelers inside linebackers averaged 15.5 tackles per game while recording nine tackles for a loss, five quarterback hits and one sack – all season long.

Turnovers? The position didn't have a hand in any during the 2022 season.

The trio of Holcomb, Roberts and Alexander have brought some splash back to the linebacker position for the Steelers.

"We've already been making splash plays," said Alexander. "Those things are going to just keep happening as long as we keep challenging each other, competing. It's going to bring the best out of us."

The coaching staff has created something of a competition between the three to get playing time. While Holcomb and Roberts have officially started the first three games, it's Alexander who leads the Steelers in tackles with 24. Holcomb has 18 to go along with his two forced fumbles, while Roberts has chipped in 13.

That aligns with some of their usage. Holcomb leads the group with 184 defensive snaps played. Alexander has played 146 snaps, while Roberts has appeared in 73 plays.

"We're all competitors. We all want to be in there every play," said Roberts, who is used primarily as a run stopper and blitzer. "We've all been in situations at other places where we have played (every down). But we know how they want to use us and what we're called on to do.

"When our number gets called and we're out there, we've got to be the best version of inside linebacker that the Pittsburgh Steelers need. You can't be an individual. If you get out there and start doing stuff outside the scheme, it's not for the team. It's selfish. As a veteran guy, you know you're out there and you just have to get it done. We're excited for each other when we make a play. It comes from having those common goals. We're all veterans and we know where we want to be."

That veteran understanding of not only how the Steelers want to use them as a group but not pouting when they are not on the field has proven beneficial.

It's not something that might have happened if all three were younger players.

None of the trip had met before signing with the Steelers. Now, they've gotten to know each other much better, spending time on and off the field together.

Obviously, they spend a lot of time studying film together. And that's when their experience really pays dividends.

"When we're watching film, I wouldn't say it's a take-the-lead-thing," said Holcomb. "We're in there having conversations. I might see it this way. They might see it another way. We talk through it and get on the same page. I think with all three of us playing a lot of ball, it's easy to have those conversations."

Roberts has played in 110 career games, with 79 of those being starts. Alexander has appeared in 98 games in his career, 86 of them starts. Holcomb, meanwhile, has 53 career games under his belt, 51 of which have been starts.

What makes the dynamic work so well is that while Roberts has played in a 3-4 defense before in his days with the Patriots and Dolphins, Alexander and Holcomb had primarily played in 4-3 fronts in their previous stops.

So, even though they've all got plenty of experience, they are still learning little things from each other.

• Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast

"I'm the one that played in a 3-4 scheme. I'm the one that kind of helps a lot with what I learned in a 3-4 scheme," Roberts said. "Kwon and Cole came from 4-3 schemes, so they help me in the 4-3 scheme stuff. What to do, what to look for, how teams scheme up against the 4-3? I played in a 4-3, but I hadn't mastered it. They played in 3-4, but it wasn't their base or anything. We're able to feed off each other, because we all have one goal."

And that goal is to make each other the best they can be and help the Steelers win. To achieve those goals, they've had to learn how to play with each other.

The Steelers have mixed and matched the group on the field since they've arrived. And that's allowed them to learn how each approaches different situations.

"We're starting to learn each other and what we can expect out of each other," Roberts said. "They know with me that if a pulling guard comes, I'm going to blow some stuff up. They're trying to get over the top. Me, stuff is about to get blown up. So, we just all know each other."

It's creating a good dynamic. And it's one the Steelers hope continues to grow as the season wears on.

"They've learned," Austin said. "They're veterans, so they've learned how to play off of each other and they know about each other's strengths and weaknesses, and I think they're learning -- they're not there yet, but they're learning to play really well with each other."

Related Content