ShareThis Page
Local Sports

Steelers ILBs Vince Williams, Tyler Matakevich don't expect drop-off

Chris Adamski
| Thursday, June 14, 2018, 8:25 p.m.
Steelers linebacker Tyler Matakevich practices during OTAs on Tuesday, May 29, 2018, at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers linebacker Tyler Matakevich practices during OTAs on Tuesday, May 29, 2018, at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Steelers linebacker Vince Williams during ota work outs May, 2018 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers linebacker Vince Williams during ota work outs May, 2018 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

It's been 17 years since the Steelers went into a season without a first-round pick atop the depth chart at one of their inside linebacker spots.

How long has it been since there wasn't a first- or second-rounder starting at either spot? Try Bill Cowher's debut season in 1992.

If Penn State is "Linebacker U," it could be argued the Steelers are "Linebacker Inc." And the franchise that has prided itself on linebackers for a half-century typically has prioritized acquiring high-pedigree talent at the position. The Steelers' two current starters at outside linebacker are former first-round picks.

That's why it's so different to scan the Steelers depth chart at ILB. It features sixth-rounder Vince Williams and seventh-rounder Tyler Matakevich. Behind them are a journeyman on his fifth team and four undrafted players.

That's quite the difference for Jerry Olsavsky, who during his first eight seasons coaching the Steelers inside linebackers coach had Pro Bowlers Lawrence Timmons and/or Ryan Shazier as starters.

"I've been blessed. I've had two first-rounders for a long time," Olsavsky said after a minicamp practice this week. "Great players, and hopefully I coached them a little bit and it wasn't just all on raw talent.

"But you've just got to work hard and try to get the guys to believe what they can do. I believe everyone can hit like Lawrence and run like Ryan — or I should say, get to the ball as fast as they can. And that's really how I coach and what they know."

When Earl Holmes and rookie Kendrell Bell started all 16 games in 2001, it marked the most recent season the Steelers didn't have a first-rounder in the middle of their defense. Since then, the likes of former No. 8 overall pick James Farrior (2002-2011) and a pair of players drafted 15th overall (Timmons from 2008-2016, and Shazier from 2013 until his spinal injury last December) were regulars at inside linebacker.

Accounting for second-round picks Bell, Levon Kirkland and Chad Brown, it has been since the Chuck Noll-drafted tandem of Hardy Nickerson and David Little were the primary ILB starters in 1992 that the Steelers didn't stack the middle of their linebacking corps with high-pedigree talent.

But will it matter in 2018? Will the Steelers defense suffer because Williams (sixth round, 2013) and Matakevich (seventh round, 2016) don't run 4.5 40s and/or weigh 255 pounds?

"You just get guys to try to do it within their skill set," said Olsavsky, a former 10th-round pick who started at inside linebacker for the Steelers in the early 1990s. "So that's what I am really going to try to do. And even though they don't run 4.3, and they can't jump (high), the guys we have can still make a lot of plays."

The projected starters have proven that. Williams had 8½ sacks in limited pass-rushing opportunities last season, and Matakevich was the consensus defensive player of the year while at Temple in 2015 after his fourth 100-tackle season.

But Matakevich is barely 6-foot and ran a 4.81 40, the skeptics say. Williams' profile isn't all that different.

"I feel communication and, honestly, just studying the game, knowing you can use that knowledge to make up for that speed, I have been doing that my whole life," Matakevich said. "'I might not be able to get there right way, so let me cheat over.' I know in my head, I know what play is coming. Use your knowledge to compensate for little things you lack."

It sounds so much like a feel-good story: the scrappy underdogs taking over for the high-profile, athletic stars. But in the real world, talent typically trumps.

The Steelers tried to sign a high-profile free agent ( Dont'a Hightower ) after Timmons left as a free agent in 2017, and they sought players at the position in the first round ( Rashaan Evans and Leighton Vander Esch ) in April four months following Shazier's serious injury.

Regardless of whether or not that was a tacit acknowledgment that there's more talent needed at the position, Williams and Matakevich frequently have said they find motivation in proving people wrong and playing with the proverbial chip on their shoulders.

"The Steelers haven't fielded a sorry linebacker in how many years?" Williams asked, rhetorically. "When was the last time we've had an incompetent linebacking corps? That's not what we do here.

"Anybody they put out there, they trust them and I trust them and I know they're gonna produce."

Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at cadamski@tribweb.com or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.

click me