The Pittsburgh Steelers threw a lot at the inside linebacker room this offseason as GM Omar Khan and assistant GM Andy Weidl completely reshaped the room.
Gone are Devin Bush, Myles Jack and Robert Spillane. Featuring Cole Holcomb, Elandon Roberts, Tanner Muse and now Nick Kwiatkoski. It’s a new look, but is the room that much better?
Time will tell.
Pro Football Focus doesn’t seem to believe the room will get that much better, ranking the Steelers’ linebacker unit No. 24 overall entering the 2023 season in its latest position location. Pittsburgh came in just ahead of the Washington Commanders at No. 25 and just behind the Arizona Cardinals at No. 23.
The Steelers are the fourth-worst linebacker unit in the AFC, according to PFF’s rankings, just ahead of the Las Vegas Raiders, Tennessee Titans and Houston Texans. Not good!
“It feels strange to rank the Steelers’ linebackers so low, but their unit struggled mightily in 2022, posting the fourth-worst overall grade in the NFL at 51.1. Gone are Devin Bush, Myles Jack and Robert Spillane. In come Cole Holcomb, Elandon Roberts and Tanner Muse.” PFF’s Dalton Wasserman writes about the Steelers’ linebacker position Tuesday. “Holcomb is a starter-caliber player who has struggled to stay healthy in two of the past three seasons. Roberts is an excellent blitzer who doesn’t excel at much else, and Muse played well when given a chance in Seattle, but only has 125 defensive snaps to his name.
“The Steelers should have a very good defense this season, but their linebackers are pretty clearly the weakest link on the unit.”
The Steelers’ inside linebackers were the color beige last season. Inoffensive overall, yet terribly bland. Zero splash plays among the group the entire 2022 season for the Black and Gold.
This led to the significant changes in the room.
In his career, Roberts has recorded 456 tackles, 39 tackles for loss, 11.0 sacks, four forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, one interception and 10 passes defensed. He works much better downhill than dropping into cover. According to Pro Football Reference, Roberts has allowed 87 receptions (113 targets) for 941 yards and six touchdowns in his six-year career. Quarterbacks have a 108.8 rating when targeting him.
Those numbers aren’t pretty, but Roberts was signed with one thing in mind: getting downhill against the run and setting the physical tone for a defense that needs that element at the linebacker position again.
He’s also a factor as a blitzer, which the Steelers have really lacked at inside linebacker since Vince Williams patrolled the middle of the field for the Black and Gold.
Stylistically and on paper, Roberts is a great fit for the Steelers. He’ll come off the field in obvious passing situations, but will also be a two-step linebacker with some advanced special teams skills. At the price the Steelers paid, it’s a very sound investment in a serious emergency.
As for Holcomb, he struggled with injuries in 2022 and played in just seven games. He recorded 69 tackles, a tackle for loss, a quarterback hit and a pass defensed in those seven games for the Commanders.
Holcomb had a breakout season at Washington in 2021, totaling 142 tackles, two tackles for loss, two quarterback hits, one sack, two interceptions (one returned for a touchdown), seven passes defensed, two forced fumbles and a fumble- recovery. He started all 16 games for the Commanders that season.
In four seasons, Holcomb has seen action in 50 games, starting 48.
Muse profiles as the group’s special teams, although he showed flashes late last season when he got an opportunity defensively for the Seattle Seahawks. Still, it feels like a bit of a stretch to expect him to do much of anything defensively.
Much of the attention for the linebacker room in Pittsburgh will be focused on second-year pro Mark Robinson, who is key in that room. If the former seventh-round pick takes a significant step forward, the room appears to be in better shape. If not, trouble is on the horizon. He’s a great athlete, plays with his hair on fire and is constantly around the football, but he’s still learning the position after switching from running back and is generally a bit raw.