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Steelers Training Camp Shaping Up To Host Another Heated ILB Battle

The Pittsburgh Steelers weren’t entirely sure what they had at inside linebacker last season, at least when it came to reserve players. They made sure to stock up on the position with low-profile free agent signings and late- to post-draft rookie additions.

That translated into a heated training camp competition that went down to the wire through all four preseason games, only to come away with five of them on the opening-day 53-man roster. And after Larry Foote was lost for the season, Stevenson Sylvester, an early favorite, was eventually brought back during the course of the season.

Foote is out in Arizona now, but the Steelers certainly have not ignored the inside linebacker position this year, as they figure to have another competition on their hands this summer that goes at least four rows deep.

Next to Lawrence Timmons, rookie Ryan Shazier has already been installed into the starting lineup. That is seemingly pretty close to already set in stone.

Last year’s rookie surprise, Vince Williams, now finds himself as the second-string buck linebacker for now, but the man he’s lining up next to is the cherry on top.

Sean Spence is the second-team mack linebacker this summer, two years after tearing up his knee to the point where the nerves behind his knee cap partially separated and were damaged. It’s been a long road, but he appears to be back, adding immensely to the team’s available depth.

Then there are some carryovers from last season: namely Kion Wilson and Terence Garvin. Wilson was one of the veteran signings, who made the team, and got first dibs at replacing Foote last season. He was outperformed by Williams and eventually found himself on the practice squad, but he’s back to compete for his spot again.

Garvin, an undrafted rookie invitee signing last season, earned his pay on special teams for most of the season before taking some reps late in the year. He has inside-outside flexibility, but his size makes him an ideal sub-package candidate if they can keep him out of the running game.

Rookie Jordan Zumwalt has taken reps primarily on the outside so far, but once training camp begins, you would figure that the bulk of his concentration will come inside, where he clearly projects long-term in this system. First-year linebacker Dan Molls was a reserve signing who has opened some eyes as well.

This is not even to mention Arthur Moats, who was brought in knowing that he is capable of playing all four linebacker positions. Because the depth at outside linebacker is far less than that of the inside positions, Moats has been stuck taking his reps on the outside, but I would be surprised if he doesn’t get at least some playing time over the next two months inside.

Of the two main reserves at the position, Williams already has several starts to his name, and showed steady improvement as a rookie last season. Meanwhile, Spence would have likely already been in the starting lineup had it not been for his injury.

Add in the experience of Moats and the promise offered by the rest of the herd, and we figure to be gearing up for yet another exciting position battle this year.

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About Matthew Marczi

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.
  • steeltown

    That’s a lot of inside guys. I like Zumwalt, I do, but if they truly perceive him long term as an inside guy one would think they don’t really like what they currently have at the bottom in Garvin and/or Kion Wilson

  • srdan

    This will be a heated battle. But I think that there is more than two ILB “starting spots”. We play abnormal defenses all the time. I don’t think it’s out of the question to see 3 ILBs on the field for quite a number of plays this year. Cincy has two good TEs. Bmore loves their TEs. And Manziel will get shadowed a lot this year by an ILB. Those are just the division games that we will need top play from our ILBs.

  • ApexSteel

    I doubt that there would ever be a time when we’d put 3 ILB’s out there.

  • Jason Vancil

    I’m betting Sean Spence doesn’t make the final roster.

  • falconsaftey43

    I wouldn’t make that bet. I see one one I think will be able to take his spot on the team as the 4th ILB/back up MACK.

  • falconsaftey43

    I could see there being times with Heyward, McLendon, Worilds, Jones, Shazier, Timmons, Spence are used as the front 7. Or something similar to that. I think there will be a lot of talent at ILB and it will be used to create more diverse looks.

  • srdan

    3 ILBs are common in goal line packages.

  • Steel PAul

    Looks like there’s going to be some talent let go for sure. Deepest position on the team suddenly.

  • ApexSteel

    I’ll take your word for it I never saw us do it though.

  • ApexSteel

    I feel like at that point you’re sacrificing too much. Spence is either taking away from the speed and coverage ability you can have on the field with another DB or the size and run stopping ability you can have on the field with another D linemen. Like I said in my comment above I don’t think I’ve ever send us use a 5 lb formation.

  • Alan Felicia

    Completely agree. Nice kid, a feel good story but two years removed from major, career ending, re-construction surgery. This team need to improve on defense so if Spence makes it all the way back, good for the team. If not, this team can’t afford a wait and see approach.

  • falconsaftey43

    It’d be more of a 4-3 look with our OLB’s Worilds and Jones playing DE and Heyward/McLendon at DT. Or maybe McLendon at DE and Thomas at DT. Something like that. Then Shazier, Timmons, Spence. or even Williams in there at MLB. Just more looks to throw at the offense while still having very good players on the field.

  • steeltown

    Im not so sure, he’s historically far better against the run then Garvin or K.Wilson and he excels in coverage. Obviously though if the injury has hindered his abilities then yes, you may be right.

  • Ike Evans

    How much? Ill take u on that bet lol…easy money

  • ApexSteel

    J Woirlds and Jarvis are both too small to hold the edge in a 4-3.

  • falconsaftey43

    I don’t think you can say that about Worilds, He is pretty big, same size as Woodley who is now a full time 4-3 DE. Regardless, I’m not talking about switching to a base 4-3 or anything, just that I can definitely see them using that sort of look to get some of these guys on the field. Especially in 3rd and long situations, you can create a lot of exotic looks.

  • ApexSteel

    I’m still not convinced that he is. Lamarr Woodley looks a lot bigger than when he came into the NFL and he came in at 266. I would say he atleast has 10 lbs on Woirlds and that still leave Jarvis over there at 245. On Third and long I would like to see a nickle package with Willie Gay out there not Sean Spence who we still don’t know about and definitely not Vince Williams who can’t cover.

  • falconsaftey43

    Heyward, McLendon, Thomas, Worilds as your down linemen. Shazier at Will, Timmons at Mike, Spence at Sam. I say that’s a pretty good front 7 to put out there at times (obviously assuming Spence is ok and is the player they thought they drafted 2 years ago.) That gets your 2 best pass rushers in position to do so (Heyward/Worilds). McLendon offers good pass rush inside. Shazier, Timmons, Spence put a lot of speed at the 2nd level. Again, this offers different looks to the offense, and allows you to rotate in talented players.

  • Weiss Chad

    I’ll give you 2 to 1 on that bet

  • Eric MacLaurin

    You can’t imagine timmons, Shazier and Spence on the field at the same time?

  • walter mason

    I cant remember seeing us use 5 linebackers. Specifically what 3 ILBs have the Steelers ever used in goal line packages?

  • ApexSteel


  • ApexSteel

    Cam Heyward doesn’t have the speed or pass rushing ability to be an end in a 4-3. This all goes back to all those rumors that were flying around this month about them potentially switching to a 4-3 and the consensus was that the team just doesn’t have the personnel.

  • falconsaftey43

    Not talking about switching to a 4-3. I’m talking about throwing different looks at the offense to mix things up, not a down in down out alignment/philosophy change. Cam Heyward is a VERY good pass rusher. Him lining up as a 4-tech vs. a 5-tech isn’t going to remove his pass rush ability. Cam would be a very good 4-3 end IMHO.

  • ApexSteel

    Not the point. I’m saying the reason why we couldn’t switch is because we don’t have the personal and ifs you don’t have the personal you can’t run it. Like I said Cam doesn’t have the speed and or the prototypical size. A 4-3 DE looks like Jason Taylor not Cam Heyward.

  • falconsaftey43

    FYI all 4-3 DE’s listed size
    Jared Allen 6-6 270
    Dwight Freeney 6-1 268
    R. Mathis 6-2 246
    Tuck 6-5 268
    J Abraham 6-4 263
    C Long 268
    R Quinn 6-4 264

    Worilds is 6-2 262. A little shorter than average, but about the same size overall. Not to mention, there were numerous reports about teams being interested in him as a 4-3 DE if he hit FA this year.

  • srdan

    ah, now that I see all the doubt from teh posters, I’m double guessing myself lol

    The one thing that oculd be different is that our DEs can get pressure now. Smith and Kiesel were great DEs but they couldnt getnerate pressure like Hayward. So that may allow to keep an oLB off the field and put an ILB on.

    But i wouldnt be surprised if my initial post is completely off.

  • srdan

    I think saying that he won’t make the Steelers is actually a possiblity. But he will be on a roster somewhere. We are all the sudden very deep at the position, but 2 years ago (which some teams have that situation today) was a lock for a player of spence’s caliber.

  • srdan


    Steelerdepot odds……..the new bodog

  • falconsaftey43

    So you mean that 4-3 DE’s don’t look like Heyward at 6-4 288?
    G. Hardy 6-4 290
    M. Williams 6-6 292
    C. Johnson 288
    E. Ansah 6-5 271
    C. Dunlap 6-6 280
    J. Peppers 6-7 287

    Sorry, your argument that they don’t have the players to put in position as 4-3 DE’s just doesn’t hold water. The position isn’t as pigeon holed to a specific size as you make it out to be. It’s about skill set. Heyward and Worilds would translate well to 4-3 DE.

  • CW

    The Steelers could easily use both Spence and Shazier on the field at the same time with Timmons. Shazier could play a hybrid edge rushing linebacker role with Spence in a more traditional inside linebacker position. Or we could see Spence playing a hybrid safety/linebacker role with Shazier as an inside linebacker.

  • Weiss Chad

    I don’t have a clue what you are saying my friend.what is the steeler depot odds ?What is a Bodog?

  • srdan

    Bodog was one of the biggest gambling sites around for a long time. I think the Feds got to it. I was joking saying that you are starting a new site giving odds. lol

  • phil

    I know this sounds crazy, but trade Timmons while you can. Trade Timmons to the cowboys and get someone who can make an offensive impact such as Terrance Williams and get a draft pick as well. Let your young LB core grow. No need to let Vince Williams sit on the bench and waste talent.

  • falconsaftey43

    It is an interesting thought. It’d be a little more practical if we knew more about what we had in Spence, Williams, Shazier, Zummwalt. Timmons is getting up there, but he is still in his prime.

  • Weiss Chad

    Good thing..The last thing I need is the Feds on my trail..

  • Weiss Chad

    I think it’s now or never for this kid Imo.With that being said if he’s back to his old form he coasts onto this roster.He was definitely better than Williams,Wilson,garvin or any other back ups at his position.Its gonna be hard to keep this kid off the field providing he still has it.

  • Weiss Chad

    His tape in college was far superior of Wilson’s or garvins .If u put Miami game tape this kid was a playmaker and seemed to be in on every single play

  • Weiss Chad

    His tape in college was far superior of Wilson’s or garçons .If u put Miami game tape in this kid was a playmaker and seemed to be in on every single play

  • charles

    Shazier, Williams, Timmons, Jones. If Spence capable, bold would sit a DL

  • chris ward

    ILB battle for depth positions should be interesting to watch during camp, will come down to special teams.

  • tyrone

    All of those linebackers have potential, but I agree that you can get a ton back right now from a desperate team like cowboys after losing Sean Lee. It is tough giving up a leader like Timmons, so the price would have to be right.

  • ApexSteel

    Greg Hardy is 275 so Heyward has almost a full 15 lbs on him.
    Mario Williams, while bigger, is one of those freak athletes who has the speed to back up his size. Same with Dunlap except he’s smaller
    Charles Johnson has elite pass rushing ability something Heyward has never displayed.
    Heyward has 17 lbs on Ansah and he can’t run a 4.6 40 like him.
    Peppers was another freak athlete which you can see by the fact that he’s 287 play 3-4 OLB with the packers.

    He has similar size to those players, but he doesn’t have the skill set.

  • sean mcmartin

    The real test is for the coaches to pick the best talent from the lot. Hope they get it right.

  • ApexSteel

    But why would we do it? If I’m a QB I’m looking to see where the mismatch will be with them on the field or where we can run the ball.

  • Leon Mcnair

    Spence can cover way better than gay

  • Leon Mcnair

    And spence is faster

  • Leon Mcnair

    They used 3 ILB remember chad brown

  • Leon Mcnair

    Kirkkand, Holmes and brown

  • Leon Mcnair

    I can

  • Leon Mcnair

    Stop smoking

  • ApexSteel

    Neither one of those things are true nor have they ever been.

  • Steve

    Have seen numerous times where everyone is standing instead of being in a 3 point stance.

  • Riverstko

    Nice to see Spence in the mix

  • walter mason

    LOL the Feds came to visit me at work for something I wrote on the internet. Its always best to not use your real name.

  • walter mason

    Are you sure? In ’96, Holmes first year in the league, Olsavsky played inside and Chad Brown was moved to ROLB. By ’97 when Holmes played, Brown was gone to Seattle.

  • walter mason

    Chad was moved to ROLB his last year.

  • Johnny Loose

    Really wish we had this dilemma at OLB. We are absolutely set at ILB. I know it’s early but I don’t care. I repeat, we are absolutely set at ILB for another run.

  • HardPunkKore

    Do you remember the pressure package with Keisel lining up as either a 0 or 1 technique and Harrison, Woodley and Gay lined up for outside rush while Farrior Foote and Timmions patrolled the inside. Keyaron Fox was in there too after Foote left for Detroit and then Farrior retiring. Some of the crazies blitzes came from the package. Didn’t see it at all last year because we had so many injuries or were playing from behind.

  • falconsaftey43

    That’s true on absolutely every down no matter the defense you’re facing. The whole point is it gives the Steelers more options of different things to run to cause more confusion. It’s called subpackage football. Mix things up to change your matchups. Say the offense is in 12 personnel, There is no obvious mismatch, and the Steelers might even have an edge fielding that sort of defense. Spence/Shazier/Timmons can call cover TE/RB. With 4 DL (whether that includes Worilds or another DE etc.) provides a good front to defend the run, as do the 3 ILB’s. You could basically swap out an OLB for ILB because we have a lot of good ILB’s. Players need rotated. You don’t necessarily have to spell an OLB with an OLB when you don’t have depth there, roll out another defensive package where you can still put good players on the field.

  • ApexSteel

    It does happen on every play, but this is a much more evident mismatch. You have a 3-4 DE playing out of position who is an ok to good pass rusher and wont have the speed to hold the edge. This site is also overrating and overhyping Sean Spence also. He was a third round pick for a reason and not playing football for three years didn’t do him any favors. They said the same thing about Baron Batch looking good after the ACL tear, but then the pads came on and now he’s on twitter giving out homemade salsa and painting. Shazier has the speed to cover, but is known to lose his assignment in coverage. And we know that Timmons isn’t exactly a great coverage man. You can’t just switch things up if you don’t have the players for it. That’s how you give up big plays

  • srdan

    yeah, great problem at ILB. One of the players that gets cut from teh group will make an impact on another team. Sounds bad, but its actually good.

  • Louis Goetz

    The Steelers couldn’t trade Lawrence Timmons (the 2nd highest paid Steeler) even if he was found in a hotel room with Mrs. Tomlin a suitcase full of crack! Had they not restructured his deal he’d be in the 4th year of his six year $50M contract. Because it was restructured in the past to clear up cap space, he’s technically in the 3rd year of a five year $46M contract that included a $21.5M pro rated signing bonus (salary was converted into bonus for cap purposes). So, if the Steelers traded Timmons before the start of the season they’d have to take an instantaneous $13.2M dead money cap hit. Since they don’t have even half that much cap space right now ($6.4M), they would literally have to cut three or four players before they could trade Timmons.

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