Just How Safe Is Steelers Inside Linebacker Stevenson Sylvester?

The Pittsburgh Steelers signed veteran inside linebacker Brandon Johnson to the roster on Wednesday and immediately the status of 2010 fifth round draft pick Stevenson Sylvester is called into question.

The first thing that you have to keep in mind is that the Steelers are apparently down three linebacker bodies at mini-camp as James Harrison, Jason Worilds and Sylvester are sidelined right now. Harrison reportedly has fluid on his knee and Worilds is recovering from off-season wrist surgery. The nature of the Sylvester injury is still unknown at this time, but he reportedly missed some time during the OTA sessions in addition. Add all of this up and you can see why Johnson, who was worked out by the Steelers back in early May, was signed.

Sylvester has seen just over 70 snaps on defense during his first two seasons in the league, many of which have come late in blow-out games. 35 of those 70 plus snaps came against the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens in weeks 8 and 9 last season due to injuries to the Steelers linebacker corps, and the Utah product did not flash in either of those two games. Sylvester has contributed on special teams during his first two seasons, but that is about it.

Early in the off-season the Steelers released veteran James Farrior and it was thought that Sylvester would possibly be a lock to back up veteran Larry Foote as the strong-side linebacker in 2012. Following the selection of inside linebacker Sean Spence in the third round of the draft back in April, linebacker coach Keith Butler was asked if Sylvester has long-term starting potential. “I need to see more from him,” said Butler. “He might think he does, but he has to convince me first.” Butler also noted that his young linebackers missed valuable time last off-season because of the lockout. “What probably hurt our young guys last year, (Stevenson and Worilds) those two guys didn’t have OTAs.  Most of the time young linebackers get better their second year because of the OTAs,” said Butler. “The first year, they come in and they go through a complex system. They’re having to think out there, and as a consequence they don’t move very fast. They’re thinking.  The next year they come in and it’s night and day for them because of repetition. They go, “Oh, that’s what we did.  That makes sense now.” They move much faster. Well, these guys didn’t have the benefit of those OTAs, and we had to get them in training camp and they were like rookies. Instead of having the OTAs and the minicamp again and then the training camp, they just had training camp. We took out two-thirds of that process for them to learn by having the lockout. That hurt them quite a bit in my opinion, and Jason Worilds really came on for us at the end of the year. I’m sure that Sly will do the same thing this year.”

Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert was asked about Sylvester last Thursday when OTA sessions wrapped up, and if he would compete with Foote for the starting BUCK position this season. “Yeah, we have Larry and we have Stevenson Sylvester, who had a good rookie year, especially on special teams,” said Colbert. Last year he had a little bit of a knee problem that nagged him and held him back for the season. They\’ll come in and they\’ll compete for that spot. Of course Larry is a veteran, and he will be ahead of him right now, but Sly will definitely give him some competition, because like I said, the rookie year we were kind of excited in him, but last year he had a couple of setbacks.”

The comments that Colbert made were pretty generic, just as one would expect, but he did reveal that Sylvester had a knee problem that nagged him last year. Sylvester also showed up on the injury report with calf injury last year, but he was only inactive for the week 12 game against the Kansas City Chiefs.

While Sylvester has made his mark on special teams, the recently signed Johnson is also known as a superb special teams player, and was even the special teams captain at one time when he was with the Cincinnati Bengals. Johnson, while not regarded as a full-time starter type of player, has played both the strong-side and weak-side over the course of his career. Also not to be forgotten is inside linebacker Mortty Ivy, who reportedly had a good training camp with the Steelers last year and former Florida linebacker Brandon Hicks, who Butler noted last Thursday as a player that had caught his eye during the OTA sessions.

While roster moves, OTA reports and injury reports in June have to be taken with a grain of salt, you have to think that Sylvester has secured absolutely nothing in regard to a 53 man roster spot this year with training camp just a little more than a month away. Missing precious time on the field because of an injury does not help his cause and he needs to make sure he is 100% healthy by the time the team reports to Latrobe. It\’s not time to throw him out with bath water just yet, but his situation certainly is worth paying attention to once training camp begins.

  • Cols714

    I’m guessing very safe. He’s not going to be cut.

  • Pete

    Excellent analysis. As you said, you are not predicting the demise of Sylvester but it does warrant keeping an eye on him in training camp to see how this unfolds.

  • RIP

    I think the Steelers are very worried about their linebackers health and ability. They are the lifeblood of the defense and Tomlin needs to make good decisions on just which guys stay and which go.

  • Cols714

    I think the Steelers’ fans are worried about their linebackers health and ability. The Steelers probably see a group of young guys who are all pretty good. The only real questionmark is Harrison with his back.

    The other guys? Timmons – no worries performance or health
    Woodley – no worries performance or health
    Foote – no worries performance or health, although he will hopefully be pushed by the younger Stevenson and Spence
    Harrison – no worries performance, but his health is an issue

  • Tim

    No worries on Foote’s performance? Holy cow do you have a lot of confidence in that guy! I’d say he’s our biggest question mark on the team outside of LT. I think I have more confidence in the toddler race at CB than I do in Foote. There has been no point in Larry’s career when I didn’t want him replaced. I’m not saying he’s terrible (although sometimes he is), but he has never been the best we could do, and he’s always been the weak link. I’ve never considered him a good starter. Lately there seems to be some backlash to that sentiment along the lines of, “Fans never liked Foote, but he’s always been a reliable blah blah blah…” but I think the criticism of him is deserved. If we don’t see enough from Spence and Sly this year, you have to take a good long look at ILB early in next year’s draft.

    I’m not worried about the other three positions though. Even Harrison. He might not have many years left, but I have confidence that Worilds will be ready. As for 2012, I think he’ll be healthier than 2011.

  • Cols714

    Foote? He’s been a steady player his whole career. There is absolutely nothing to worry about. The Steelers know exactly what they are getting from him.

    Of course he could be upgraded, but considering the fact that the Steelers only drafted 1 LB in the entire draft, and that wasn’t until the 3rd round, I’m guessing they are not at all worried about their LBers.

  • fire arians

    I agree, foote is solid as a run stuffer and fits his role fine, I’m not worried about him either. Spence I don’t think was a ‘need’ pick, but the best player on board when the steelers’ turn came up.

  • Kingmagyar

    Brandon Johnson, Brandon Hicks, and Morty Ivy will be breathing down Sylvester’s neck in the pre-season and he could very well be cut if those guys show more. The thing that worries me about Sylvester is that last pre-season going against guys that weren’t even going to be in the league he did nothing. That was the pre-season and he should have dominated.

  • kevin

    You may have wanted him to be replaced in 2008 but he played a significant role on one of the best defenses of the past 25 years and possibly of all-time.

  • Jefferson St. Joe

    Sylvester caught my eye in that first camp and I’ve been rooting for him since then and I think he’s going to be a player. That said, Sylvester and everyone else will have 2+ months to show where they are and Butler will pick the right 8-9 linebackers for the final 53.

  • Cols714

    Uh, no. None of those guys are going to even make the team. His job is pretty safe.

  • Finnegans Wake


  • Finnegans Wake

    Chris Carter is on more of a bubble, but also IMO has more upside as a versatile ILB/OLB hybrid. I think Carter makes the cut and Adrian Robinson makes the PS.

  • Shannon Stephenson

    Last year I thought Ivy had a chance to make the roster…in the preseason games he was all over the place…if Sly slips Ivy maybe the guy…before OTA’s I had Ivy as my 9th LB making the squad. I believe Johnson is more of a camp body because of the injuries…if he was a real threat he would have already been on the team and someone else would not have been.

  • AndyR34

    That is an opinion…not a fact. Sly is a 5th round draft choice, I believe, that has only shown an ability to perform on special teams. He has not shown that he understands or can play ILB in the NFL…sort of like Patrick Bailey a few years ago. B. Johnson would not have been signed unless he could provide something other than special teams play…and I wouldn’t count out Mortyy Ivy either. He has stayed with them for a reason. None of us know what the coaches see and think about these players. Any comments are pure speculation, except that the first 3 draft choices are pretty certain to make the 53-man squad.

  • SteelSpine

    Thanks for the article, because I’m still left wanting more information about Slyvester & Ivy & the other candiates for ILBs other than Foote & Timmons. I recall Slyvester made many tackles all over field in what was the only (I-think) preseason game which he was starter for entire game. Since then Sylvester’s been a man of mystery; not much known about him. He’s been on team long enough that now is the right time to become a starter in this system (unless LeBeau knows something about him that fans cant see, & no-doubt that’s possible). I hear Sly’s been our best special teams player (other than ABrown), so we’d need to replace him on on ST tackling if Sly gets promoted, but we drafted Spence & brought in the ST tackler from Bengals.

    I remember Foote’s last season before he was not re-signed & went to Detroit: Foote looked too-slow, on replays. And he could not have become faster since a few years ago. If you dont have foot speed anymore, would need to be a blow-em-up type linebacker like Ray Lewis or Donte Hightower outta Alabama. So I foresee the torch getting passed from Foote, sounds like LeBeau is content to wait till end of this season to do that torch-passing though.