Steelers ILBs Vince Williams, Tyler Matakevich don't expect drop-off
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 email@example.com or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.