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Thread: Steelers are remaking their LB corps with smaller, athletic, more versatile players

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    Steelers are remaking their LB corps with smaller, athletic, more versatile players

    The Steelers are remaking their linebacker corps with smaller, athletic and more versatile players

    RAY FITTIPALDO
    Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
    APR 28, 2019

    Sutton Smith created havoc as an edge defender at Northern Illinois, where he had 29 sacks and 57 tackles for a loss over the past two seasons. That’s crazy production for a player at any level of college football, but it’s especially impressive to achieve at an Football Bowl Subdivision school.

    The Steelers are hoping Smith’s playmaking ability translates to the NFL, but he’s unlike any outside linebacker they’ve had on their roster since they switched to the 3-4 defense in the 1980s. At 6 feet and 233 pounds, Smith is about 5 inches shorter and 20 pounds lighter than the prototypes the Steelers usually acquire.

    In fact, he’s about the size of Devin Bush, the Steelers No. 1 pick, who enters the league with the label of being undersized for an inside linebacker.

    It’s a sign of the times in the NFL. As the Steelers continue to morph in order to keep up with the short, quick passing games that are dominating the NFL, it might be best to forget the inside and outside labels for Steelers linebackers.

    “Well, you know what’s going on, how many true linebackers have been drafted in this draft?” defensive coordinator Keith Butler said. “The true linebacker when I played, or five or six years ago, was a lot bigger body. There are several of them still on the board in there. Why’s that? Because the game is changing, the game is changing to a little bit quicker game. People are keeping three wide receivers on the field a lot more than they used to. So, we have to adapt as a defense. Sometimes adapting to the defenses means you graduate to guys who can move. Sutton can move.”

    The Steelers got caught off guard by opposing offensive coordinators in the 2018 season when they didn’t have the necessary personnel to match up with their receivers and running backs. The game against Los Angeles Chargers most readily comes to mind, but they were exposed in other games, too.

    In addition to Bush and Smith, the Steelers also drafted linebacker Ulysees Gilbert III later in the sixth round. In March, they signed Mark Barron to a two-year, $12 million contract.

    The four new linebackers are all smaller in stature, possess the speed and athleticism to play in pass coverage and offer versatility. Gilbert (6-0, 224) is small for a linebacker, but he ran a 4.48 at the NFL Scouting Combine. And like Smith, he was an effective playmaker in the Mid-American Conference.

    “We think Ulysees can compete for special teams play, as well as give us the new type of athleticism that you look for,” said general manager Kevin Colbert, who also noted Gilbert might be able to play inside and outside.

    “That’s where the game is going,” inside linebackers coach Jerry Olsavsky said.

    Smith didn’t run quite as well as Gilbert at the combine. His 4.69 is below average for a linebacker, but he did the three-cone drill in 6.75 seconds, a testament to his quickness and ability to change direction. It was the best time for any defensive end at the combine and much better than Bush, who posted a 6.93 in the the same drill.

    That athleticism helped Smith beat offensive tackles in the MAC, but he likely will have to add off-the-ball linebacker duties to his resume if he’s going to make it in the NFL. He worked as an inside linebacker at the Senior Bowl, and the Steelers will take a look at him there at some point as well.

    “We thought at the time that we looked at him that he was going to be a good player for us on the outside until he gets used to what we’re going to ask him to do,” Butler said. “We’re going to see what he can do after that. Now he’s probably going to help [special teams coach] Danny Smith more than he helps me early. The way linebackers make NFL teams, is they come in and make themselves very valuable on special teams and build themselves another year to try and learn what’s going on with the defense. Once they do that, then they compete for starting jobs. You know what the NFL does. People get older and you always have to have a sea of competition coming in behind guys.”

    Smith’s experience in college should help him as he tries to find a niche in the NFL. Northern Illinois played a 3-5-3 defensive alignment, which allowed Smith to gain experience not only on the edge but off the ball as well.

    Butler said Smith reminds him of Genard Avery of the Cleveland Browns, who had 4½ sacks as a rookie last season after a standout college career at Memphis.

    “That 3-5-3, two of those five on the front line are usually walked out on wide receivers and stuff like that,” Butler said. “Sometimes you bring them in and you bring off the edge and rush off the edge, and that’s what everyone in college is doing now. So he’s kind of a little bit of both. I think the kid from Memphis last year did the same thing. He acclimated very well into the NFL. We need guys that can play in space.”

    https://www.post-gazette.com/sports/...s/201904280209

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    Steelers Draft With Confidence When Picking Outside Of Power-5 Schools After Doing Homework

    By Matthew Marczi 

    Posted on May 8, 2019 at 11:00 am

    While the Pittsburgh Steelers more than a lot of teams are a Power-5-centric organization with respect to their scouting process—or more accurately in their drafting process—they have certainly made some prominent dips outside of that territory, whether it’s in the first round or with undrafted free agents. Their 2019 NFL Draft class in particular was marked with a MAC presence, as we have previously addressed.

    With nine selections over the course of three days, the Steelers ended up using three of those on players from the MAC conference, including one as high as early in the third round on Toledo wide receiver Diontae Johnson.

    They used a pair of selections in the sixth round on linebackers Sutton Smith and Ulysees Gilbert III. The former is from Northern Illinois, while the latter is from Akron.

    Truth be told, while all of them obviously have a shot of making the roster, Johnson is the only one who should be considered much of a roster lock, but the latter two were drafted with special teams roles in mind for the first part of their careers, believing that their skill sets lend them to being about to produce in that area.

    But how do you evaluate talent from weaker conferences when the talent level they are both playing with and against is in such contrast to players in, for example, the SEC? Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin addressed that question after the draft.

    “I think that one of the tapes that stood out about Sutton Smith was the multiple sack game he had against Florida State”, he said, pointing out that these other conferences still mix it up with Power-5 schools, and thus give you that apples-to-apples comparison. “I think that one of the games that stood out about Johnson was the big game he had against Miami of Florida. They have plenty of opportunities to evaluate these guys with Power-5-like talent”.

    One could argue that it’s even more impressive for a player from the MAC to show up against an SEC team than it is for a player within the SEC to do so within his own conference, because the MAC player is going to be playing with a lower level of competition on his team. But you can still glean something from within the conference, as they did with Javon Hargrave’s tape several years ago.

    “Those players stand out at that level”, General Manager Kevin Colbert added. “They play some bigger schools, some bigger conferences, and they usually hold their own. Those players show up in those games. And a guy like Sutton Smith, as Coach mentioned, was at the Senior Bowl, and actually worked some inside linebacker in the Senior Bowl. So you got to see him at a higher level at another position. So that was encouraging”.

    So the Steelers might not heavily recruit from outside of the Power-5, but when they do, they do so with a high degree of confidence. They feel good about the three players from the MAC that they added in the draft, to do along with guys like Nix, Hargrave, and others already on the roster from less prestigious conferences and divisions of play.

    https://steelersdepot.com/2019/05/steelers-draft-with-confidence-when-picking-outside-of-power-5-schools-after-doing-homework/
    Steeler teams featuring stat-driven, me-first, fantasy-football-darling diva types such as Antonio Brown & Le'Veon Bell won no championships.

    Super Bowl winning Steeler teams were built around a dynamic, in-your-face defense plus blue-collar, hard-hitting, no-nonsense football players on offense such as Hines Ward & Jerome Bettis.

    We don't want Juju & Conner to replace what we lost in Brown & Bell.

    We are counting on Juju & Conner to return us to the glory we once had with Hines & The Bus.

  3. #3
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    I understand why the Steelers are going in that direction. Everything in the NFL goes in cycles. One now has to wonder whether OC's will counter this defensive shift with the power game? You already saw a hint of this from BAL with Jackson running wild. The Steelers themselves just drafted a beastly RB that probably can flattened a few of these lightweight modern LBs. Be interesting the chess match teams will play going into Sunday afternoon.

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    Baltimore does not appear to be trying to develop a power game to me. It look like they are attempting to maximize speed on offense. Lamar Jackson is fast. Marquise Brown is fast. Justice Hill is fast. Miles Boykin is fast.
    Steeler teams featuring stat-driven, me-first, fantasy-football-darling diva types such as Antonio Brown & Le'Veon Bell won no championships.

    Super Bowl winning Steeler teams were built around a dynamic, in-your-face defense plus blue-collar, hard-hitting, no-nonsense football players on offense such as Hines Ward & Jerome Bettis.

    We don't want Juju & Conner to replace what we lost in Brown & Bell.

    We are counting on Juju & Conner to return us to the glory we once had with Hines & The Bus.

  5. #5
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    Everything comes in cycles. The NFL in part transitioned to lighter cover guys and wide open pass offenses due to some rule changes but also as a counter to bigger slower more physical teams. It allowed for more mismatches. It’s the reason I personally believe that having a physical running game can counter these moves to lighter defenses.

  6. #6
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    Quote Originally Posted by Shawn View Post
    Everything comes in cycles. The NFL in part transitioned to lighter cover guys and wide open pass offenses due to some rule changes but also as a counter to bigger slower more physical teams. It allowed for more mismatches. It’s the reason I personally believe that having a physical running game can counter these moves to lighter defenses.
    I agree with you Shawn and I’m happy that it seems like we are going to bring that physical running game now.
    From the 2010-2018 season, (An 8 year period that the majority of Cowher's players & coaches had left) Mike Tomlin has only won 3 playoff games. And two of those wins were against back up Quarterbacks. Our history has been defined by what we do in the postseason; not the regular season.

    My official proclamation: WE WILL NOT WIN ANOTHER SUPER BOWL WITH MIKE TOMLIN AS OUR HEAD COACH. SO WHY DELAY THE INEVITABLE?

    FIRE MIKE TOMLIN

  7. #7
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    Quote Originally Posted by Steel Maniac View Post
    I agree with you Shawn and I’m happy that it seems like we are going to bring that physical running game now.
    Oh gawd, get ready for 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust-turtle-me offense.

  8. #8
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    Quote Originally Posted by NorthCoast View Post
    Oh gawd, get ready for 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust-turtle-me offense.
    . Lol, hardly. But, now that you have lighter faster Ds, only makes sense that more physical backs will become en vogue again.

  9. #9
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    I was thinking about these smaller faster hybrid LBs and thinking is there also now a premium for premiere DTs that can take on double teams and keep these smaller LBs free to roam and make plays?

    For example, you think of many of the top MLBs in history and they wouldn't have been much without their DLine. I'd argue Ray Lewis would have been mediocre without Ngata as an example. And this points me back to what is the prototype Dline that you want up front. Is there a place for guys like Casey Hampton and Aaron Smith again or does your D line need to generate pressure? Where's that balance. I say the DLine is more important than the LBs and Ss. And you really have to build around Dline and CBs.

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    Flippy, you’ve made an excellent point. I think it depends on the vision of the DC on what he thinks his D-line’s overall job is. And to that point, I’d love to ask Mr. Butler just what his vision is for the D-line’s goal as well as the overall defensive philosophy in general.

    Isn’t Muhammad Wilkerson sitting out there in free agency right now?
    From the 2010-2018 season, (An 8 year period that the majority of Cowher's players & coaches had left) Mike Tomlin has only won 3 playoff games. And two of those wins were against back up Quarterbacks. Our history has been defined by what we do in the postseason; not the regular season.

    My official proclamation: WE WILL NOT WIN ANOTHER SUPER BOWL WITH MIKE TOMLIN AS OUR HEAD COACH. SO WHY DELAY THE INEVITABLE?

    FIRE MIKE TOMLIN

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