Tyler Matakevich making most of his chances at Steelers training camp
The defensive player who unofficially has gotten the most first-team practice reps through the first three weeks of Steelers training camp might surprise you.
It isn't a former Pro Bowler, a recent first-round pick or a unit captain.
In fact, it isn't even a player who is on the first team.
“It's been one heck of a learning process,” second-year linebacker Tyler Matakevich said of his extensive work with the starting unit. “I've been playing with some of the best players I've ever seen in my life.”
“I mean, I love it. Being able to listen to what they are telling me to do, what I'm doing good, what I need to work on. That means the world to me.”
Matakevich arguably has gotten more practice snaps than any Steelers defensive player through the first 11 training camp practices this summer, 15 months after the Steelers made him their final draft pick.
Matakevich was taken 246th overall, seven spots shy of being Mr. Irrelevant — a fitting spot when his measurables were taken into account (6-foot, 238 pounds, 4.81 seconds in the 40-yard dash).
But the Steelers were enamored more with Matakevich's production and intangibles: 493 career tackles, a team captain, the 2015 Bronko Nagurski Award winner as the nation's best defensive player, leading Temple to a conference championship game, 10 wins and a top-20 national ranking.
“They don't hand (the Nagurski) out to anyone, particularly a guy who comes from a smaller program like Temple,” Tomlin said after the team drafted Matakevich. “It's football justice when a guy like him when gets an opportunity.”
Tomlin and his staff quickly recognized Matakevich's football IQ during last year's training camp, and he was a surprising member of the 53-man roster when the regular season began.
“You think you know what you're doing,” Matakevich said with a laugh as he thought back a year ago to his rookie camp, “and then the next thing you know, a year later, I feel like I had no idea what I was doing. But having that whole year and then having (organized team activities) and stuff, it's day and night how much different I feel mentally and physically going into this.”
Last season, Matakevich was one of the Steelers' top special teams players, leading them in special teams tackles and appearing in more than 60 percent of the special-teams snaps.
Defensively, Matakevich was deep down the depth chart, getting all but one of his 19 defensive snaps during an Oct. 16 game at Miami. He had a team-leading eight tackles in that game.
When longtime Steeler Lawrence Timmons departed via free agency during the offseason, the Steelers made no additions to their inside linebackers corps. Vince Williams was promoted to Timmons' former starting spot at “Buck” inside linebacker, but that left a hole at the top backup slot.
While L.J. Fort and Steven Johnson have more experience, it was Matakevich who stepped in with the first-team defense during the second practice of training camp when Williams was out because of injury. Coinciding almost exactly with Williams' return a few days later, starting “Mack” inside linebacker Ryan Shazier was injured, so Matakevich shifted over and remained with the first team.
In effect, a year after barely being drafted — and, perhaps, being the 52nd or 53rd member of the 53-man roster when his rookie camp broke — Matakevich has spent virtually all of his second camp as a “starter.”
“He's fit right in,” defensive co-captain Cameron Heyward said.
Defensive starters Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Mike Mitchell, Sean Davis, Artie Burns, Bud Dupree and others have joined Williams and Shazier in missing varying lengths of practice time because of injury, and other players had practice reps limited for various reasons.
Not Matakevich, which is fitting because he's viewed as a rock, even if he lacks the speed and flash of many of those around him on an emerging Steelers defense.
“Just having the opportunity to go out there and show these guys on defense and the coaches what I can do, I think that's huge for me and huge for this team because, God forbid, if something happens, you've got to have the next guy ready to go, and we can't miss a beat,” Matakevich said. “And that's the mentality and approach I have, and that's what I'm trying to do.”