By Matthew Marczi
By now we all have seen Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Stevenson Sylvester’s injury during the preseason opener against the New York Giants. The fourth-year veteran had just come in to make a strong special teams tackle following a punt by Drew Butler. After the tackle, rookie wide receiver Markus Wheaton, serving as the gunner on the left side, came screaming in on an angle, running perhaps a bit too fast considering that the tackle had already been made, and ultimately barreled right into Sylvester’s right leg.
Sylvester’s leg bent awkwardly, although his planted foot caused his right ankle to take the brunt of the punishment after initially appearing to be a knee injury. He rolled onto his stomach and stayed down for a few seconds before quickly getting up and jogging off, though visibly grimacing and favoring his right side.
Seemingly unobserved was that the gunner on the other side, rookie safety Shamarko Thomas, also came screaming in on the play before Wheaton, and in fact ending up at Wheaton\’s feet. The receiver ended up tripping over Thomas as the latter attempted to get up.
Wheaton actually attempted to leap over his fallen teammate, as Sylvester had done, lifting both himself and Giants returner Jayron Hosley over Thomas while making the tackle. However, as Thomas was getting up, Wheaton ended up kneeing him in the back, himself tumbling forward over Hosley and into Sylvester’s leg.
It was an unfortunate incident all around with two rookies combining to inadvertently injure a teammate on a special teams play, but fortunately, the damage does not appear to be too serious, as Sylvester is expected to only miss two days of practice, resuming work on Thursday (Tuesday is an off day, much to head coach Mike Tomlin’s chagrin).
It is hoped that the ankle injury will have no long-term ramifications on Sylvester’s struggle to maintain a roster spot. The inside linebacker was the only one of the team’s restricted free agents not to be given a tender by the team earlier this offseason. He was later signed to a veteran-minimum contract after no other team took an interest in him.
Reports during camp thus far had been good for him, however. He had been running the second-team Mack linebacker position alongside second-year player Marshall McFadden. Linebackers coach Keith Butler recently spoke highly of him after earlier stressing the importance of this year for him, saying that he is likely the third inside linebacker as it stands right now.
In fact, in-game, Sylvester was scheduled to check in on defense following that punt alongside McFadden, though he was obviously not fit to resume play. In his place, sixth round rookie linebacker Vince Williams took some earlier than anticipated snaps and did not appear lost.
In practice on Monday, former Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Brian Rolle was playing second-team with McFadden in Sylvester’s stead after a strong performance against the Giants on Saturday. He and the rest of the inside linebackers as a group played well, instantaneously intensifying the roster battle for a position that earlier in the offseason was seen as weak, with hopes being pinned to the possibility of second-year linebacker Sean Spence being able to recover from nerve damage suffered during the 2012 preseason finale.