The start of the 2013 Pittsburgh Steelers training camp is now almost just a week away so we will continue to look at the training camp battles that will take place with a look at the battle for a few backup inside linebacker spots on the 53 man roster. You can comment on this battle below and make sure to vote in the attached poll.
Training Camp Battle Setup: The Steelers are expecting Sean Spence to start the season on the PUP list and veteran Brandon Johnson was not re-signed during the offseason. Like last season, the Steelers head into training camp with more questions than they have answers as it relates to who will back up starters Lawrence Timmons and Larry Foote. The three players who are most likely to make the roster as the backup inside linebackers are Stevenson Sylvester, Marshall McFadden and Vince Williams.
Stevenson Sylvester – Sylvester\’s biggest problem over the course of his first three seasons in the league is the fact that he can\’t seem to keep himself on the field because of injuries. Last season it was a knee injury during training camp that kept him sidelined for a few games at the start of the season and later in the year it was a hamstring problem that prevented him from dressing. Linebackers coach Keith Butler made it clear during the 2013 NFL Draft that this is a make-or-break training camp coming up for the former fifth-round draft pick.
According to reports, Sylvester has worked at both the inside and outside positions during the offseason and that is not really a surprise being as he played both spots during the one preseason game that he was able to suit up for last season prior to injuring his knee. Sylvester still has yet to crack 100 snaps of playing time on defense; however, and his play on special teams last year included him being penalized three times for holding. Sylvester is really not an outside linebacker, so it will be interesting to see just how many snaps he receives on the left side during the preseason with all the other bodies currently on the roster.
As far as his inside play goes, Sylvester still seems to be more of a run and hit linebacker (MACK) than he is one that can stack a shed a blocker. It will be worth watching during the preseason where he lines up inside to see what the coaching staff thinks he really is. The BUCK and MACK positions have blurred in the Steelers defense over the years, so Sylvester needs to show he can handle whatever spot he is asked to play in addition to being a solid contributor on special teams. More importantly, perhaps, is the fact that he needs to stay healthy throughout the preseason.
Marshall McFadden – McFadden really caught my attention late in the preseason games last year, and he would up leading the team in tackles in addition. His solid play and understanding of the defense resulted in him being a mainstay on the Steelers practice squad last year, and now he must take the next step this year as a second-team player.
McFadden reportedly can play both spots inside and can call the defense as well, so he figures to get even more playing time this year during the preseason against a little better competition. Can he cover? We shall see, but indications from last year were that he can.
Like all the other young linebackers on the roster, McFadden must make an impact on special teams during the preseason, and he really needs to show that he has even more upside if he is going to make the final 53 man roster.
Vince Williams – Williams, who was drafted by the Steelers in the sixth-round this past April out of Florida State, is a heavy hitter and that alone should help him contribute on special teams. The biggest thing that the coaching staff wants to see out of him during training camp is if he can cover inside as they already know he can take on blockers and hit.
Williams was just a two-down linebacker during his college career, and that is a moniker that he will be looking forward to dropping in training camp. In addition to that, he is mostly considered just a straight-line player, so he will have to show that he has improved his change of direction and lateral ability some. He doesn\’t have a quick see-to-do and that is another facet of his game that must improve over time, if at all possible.
Look for Williams to get reps with the third team early in the preseason and perhaps some looks with the second team as well if he develops rapidly.
Prediction: It\’s not outlandish to think that all three of these players could make the 53 man roster out of training camp, but it is important to remember that the team only kept four inside linebackers the last two seasons heading into the first week of the season. Both McFadden and Williams are eligible for the practice squad, but I have a feeling that the rookie is pretty much a lock to make the roster. We have a pretty good reason to believe that the Steelers will carry at least nine linebackers in total so that could leave one of these three out should that be the case. If Sylvester can remain healthy and show position flexibility, I think the Steelers will keep all three of these players.