Finally recovered after missing two seasons with a knee injury, LB Sean Spence will bring his speed and athleticism to a Steelers defense that is committed to getting faster.
Locks: Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier
Battling: Arthur Moats vs. Chris Carter vs. Jordan Zumwalt
Available: 2 spots
The Skinny: There are suddenly a wealth of attractive options at all of the linebacker spots in the Steelers 3-4 defense, and while the starters are all but set in stone, it wouldn’t surprise me to see the team carry nine linebackers on the active roster. Even if all nine aren’t going to contribute defensively, the special teams ability that several bring to the table is substantial.
Moats was brought in as a free agent from Buffalo, where he played in all but five games in four years. He only started eight games for the Bills, but he brings valuable experience, high football IQ and an aggressive playing style to a defense that needs it. Moats is also a high character guy and a strong presence in the locker room. Couple those intangibles with his ability to play any of the linebacker positions, and Moats is basically a lock to make this team.
Carter has played enough games (29) over his three-year career in Pittsburgh to expect more of an impact than simply 16 tackles and a fumble recovery. For a guy who was billed as a pass rusher with excellent quickness and strength off the edge, Carter has failed to even register one sack in the NFL heading into his fourth season. This failure to produce isn’t going to fly much longer, and you wonder if the former fifth round pick has reached the point where he needs to dominate the preseason in order to keep a roster spot for the 2014 season.
Were it still the 1970’s, Zumwalt would probably be starting as a star linebacker for the Steel Curtain defense, because that’s the style of football he plays. Tough, physical, aggressive, and versatile enough to play any of the 3-4 linebacker spots, Zumwalt makes up for his lack of athleticism and speed with a top-notch work ethic and excellent football IQ. He was born to be an elite special teams performer, but that may only be scratching the surface of his potential fit with the Steelers. He may never have the agility and quickness to be a full-time starter, but Zumwalt is the kind of linebacker the Steelers have been known to hold onto and develop into a contributing force.
Prediction: Moats and Zumwalt. Carter could make this team if the Steelers decide to carry nine linebackers and make five of them edge guys, but I see Pittsburgh keeping five inside linebackers instead. Carter simply hasn’t produced and that has been acceptable because of the lack of talent at linebacker over the past few years. But with the addition of Moats, the return of Sean Spence, and the drafting of Ryan Shazier and Zumwalt, the linebacker corps in Pittsburgh is now stacked with potential, which spells trouble for Carter.
Locks: Jarvis Jones, Jason Worilds
Battling: Sean Spence vs. Vince Williams vs. Terence Garvin vs. Jordan Zumwalt
Available: 2 spots
The Skinny: If Zumwalt doesn’t make it at OLB and Carter does, that will set up an intense four-way battle at ILB. My guess is that Carter doesn’t make the cut and the Steelers keep nine linebackers, meaning all of the above would make the squad. But if Pittsburgh decides to keep Carter, then there will be a tough call to be made about which linebacker is the final cut.
If Spence is truly healthy after missing the past two seasons with a knee injury, and that looked to be the case during OTAs, then he moves to the locks. He’s got excellent quickness and athleticism and will battle with Shazier for a starting spot. I expect Shazier to win the job, but Spence should be the first linebacker off the bench. Shazier and Spence’s combined skill sets will allow the Steelers to be creative with their personnel groupings thanks to the duo’s speed and coverage ability.
Williams performed admirably last year when he was forced into the lineup in place of an injured Larry Foote, starting 11 games and making 53 tackles. He’s not flashy and isn’t much of an impact player, but Williams will stay at home and make sure tackles, precisely what you want your reserves to do. He’s a smart and steady player who brings a physical presence between the tackles and a fearless aggression to the Steelers’ special teams unit.
Speaking of special teams, Garvin was one of the team’s top performers in that capacity last season, as well as starting one game defensively for Pittsburgh. He’s severely undersized for an NFL linebacker (6’3 221) and is much better suited playing weak side linebacker in a 4-3 alignment than any spot in a 3-4 defense. However he’s another aggressive, physical player, with above average athleticism and great tackling skills. It’s no secret the Steelers like him, but will it be enough to grab one of the final roster spots?
Zumwalt’s size (6’4, 235) and experience in the 3-4 defense (UCLA plays a 3-4) mean he could easily move to his more natural position of inside linebacker without a drop-off in play or understanding. He’ll probably need to add some bulk to play inside in the NFL, but he has the intelligence and the physicality for the position already.
Prediction: It’s not the trendy pick, but I think Carter is the odd man out in Pittsburgh and that all four of the aforementioned make the 53-man roster. The unit is simply too strong for the Steelers to justify only keeping eight linebackers, and at this point Carter is clearly the option with the least upside. Garvin and Zumwalt will feel the pressure, but ultimately it is Carter who is going to have to prove he belongs on this team and is finally ready to make some noise.