By Matthew Marczi
Inside linebacker depth has been a concern for the Pittsburgh Steelers since the release of James Farrior, which moved Larry Foote back into the starting lineup after serving two years as the team’s primary backup at the position. The Steelers addressed the issue in the 2012 NFL Draft when they drafted Sean Spence in the third round; however, he has yet to play a down in the NFL as he continues to rehab a serious knee injury.
Concern over inside linebacker depth was perhaps even greater during this offseason after reports of Spence’s slow recovery, which necessitated the re-signing of Foote, and the fact that the team elected not to sign Stevenson Sylvester to a restricted free agent tender.
Much of the worry seemed to change overnight, however, following Saturday’s preseason opener against the New York Giants, which put on display a linebacking unit eight players deep, all of whom represented themselves in strong fashion.
Foote and Lawrence Timmons are, of course, given commodities as the starting inside linebackers in 2013. As it currently stands, both Sylvester and second-year player Marshall McFadden are evidently in the driver’s seat to serve as the interior reserves. That leaves four players gunning either for one of their jobs, or for a rare fifth inside linebacker spot.
The pool includes two rookies and two veterans with experience in the league. Vince Williams was drafted in the sixth round this year with the reputation of being a big hitter, a smart player, and a leader, but with questionable coverage ability.
Terence Garvin came onto the team after the draft for a tryout during the team’s rookie mini camp, and a few days later was signed to the 90-man roster. He played outside linebacker and safety in college and could be perceived as one the small side regarding weight, but he has good coverage instincts.
The first of the veterans is Brian Rolle, a former sixth-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Eagles who started 13 games as a rookie in 2011 before losing the starting spot, and then his job, early in 2012. At just 5’10”, he certainly lacks ideal size, but he displays many other desirable attributes from an inside linebacker.
Last on the list is Kion Wilson. Undrafted out of college in 2010, Wilson played in three games for the San Diego Chargers as a rookie, but an ankle injury landed him on injured reserve. He spent 2012 out of football.
Due to an ankle injury to Sylvester, Garvin and Williams were afforded the opportunity to get an extended look in the second quarter before being relieved by the veterans in the third, and then wrapped up the fourth quarter. Below is a summary or how all four performed in game one of the preseason.
Terence Garvin: Garvin was the first of the late-string linebackers to get into the game, playing the majority of the second quarter alongside McFadden. Sylvester played one snap, and Vince Williams mopped up a two-minute drive to end the half. While he was in on a few tackles in the running game on his second drive, he primarily dropped into coverage. Late in the fourth quarter, Garvin deflected a third down pass that would have placed the Giants in the red zone.
Vince Williams: Despite coming to the team with the reputation as a two-down linebacker, Vince Williams showed well for himself in coverage, which was his primary responsibility during the 10-play drive at the end of the first half. Unfortunately for Williams, some of his best plays in coverage were negated by the two penalties on Jason Worilds. On the first, he laid a nice hit on running back David Wilson for what would have been a two yard loss after safety DaMon Cromartie-Smith wrapped him up by the legs. On the second, he quickly sniffed out another pass to Wilson and tackled him for what would have been no gain. Once the fourth quarter came around, he and Garvin reentered the game, and on the first play, Williams registered a sack on the blitz up the middle.
Kion Wilson: Kion Wilson started the second half with the third-team defense, and he registered a quarterback hit on a blitz on his second snap in the game. Two plays later, he avoided a blocker to get into the backfield, funneling running back Da’Rel Scott into the teeth of the defense. On the first play of his second drive in the game, he quickly read run and ripped through a hole to take Scott down in the backfield for a loss of three yards.
Late in the third, however, he allowed Scott to slip out of the backfield, who proceeded to beat linebacker Jarvis Jones for a 20-yard gain on third and 10.
Brian Rolle: Brian Rolle entered the game alongside Wilson. What stuck out most was his aptitude to blitz and to fall back into coverage. Early in the third quarter, he undercut tight end Larry Donnell to ensure that he would not haul in a high pass from quarterback Curtis Painter. On the next play, he was shadowing Scott, but after reading that he was staying in to block, he rushed the quarterback and registered the sack on third down. He ended the next drive on a blitz by pressuring the quarterback into throwing a poor, low-percentage pass.
Following the David Gilreath fumble, he registered a run stop in the backfield, then made a shoestring tackle on a draw on third down to limit the Giants to a field goal attempt, which they missed. Later, he was able to follow Donnell down the seam and deflect the pass away as it touched his hand. However, he was also manhandled on a screen pass that went for nine yards.