The Steelers have a lot of potential needs for the 2021 NFL Draft, one of which was exacerbated on Tuesday.
With Ben Roethlisberger’s contract redone, the Steelers were able to get cap compliant, but more cuts were necessary for the team to continue to re-sign its own free agents and look for available players outside the the team to fill some of the numerous holes on the squad.
Tuesday, the Steelers released veteran inside linebacker Vince Williams to save $4 million on the cap and help the team sign players like Zach Banner, B.J. Finney and Cameron Sutton.
That is where the draft enters into the mind. Without Williams, the Steelers need another athletic linebacker across from Devin Bush. When Bush is in there, he is the Steelers’ do-it-all coverage ace while Williams has been the downhill attacker. That is a formula that can work, but as the Browns showed in the final two games of the season, the Steelers have an identifiable weakness versus empty sets.
This is a problem that has plagued the Steelers for at least a decade now. The crux of the issue comes in how they play versus multiple tight end sets, especially 12 personnel. Keith Butler and Mike Tomlin want to stop the run first and stay in their 3-4 base defense against multiple tight end sets. So, when teams come out in condensed formations and then motion out into empty sets, it creates mismatches, such as a linebacker on a wide receiver in the slot.
To no fault of his own, Robert Spillane was the victim in the Steelers playoff game. He was matched up multiple times against players like Jarvis Landry, who ate him alive. It is tough to find linebackers who can match receivers in man coverage. Bush is one of those standout special guys. However, as it has been shown by teams like the Buccaneers, two athletic, coverage first linebackers are a massive boon to a team’s defense.
It feels like that is where the Steelers are lacking defensively at this point. They do not have another guy across from Bush to match receivers in man coverage. The Steelers do not “match man” out of their base defense either. Some teams force the linebackers and defensive backs to communicate and get set up against likewise skill positions. The Steelers do not do that, for better or for worse.
Since it is a vital part of the defensive scheme and it would be tough to change, the Steelers should go the personnel route in solving this longstanding issue. They have never truly had two athletic linebackers next to each other. The best off-ball linebacker duos in the NFL are athletic. Think of Lavonte David and Devin White or Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano when conceptualizing how important great coverage linebackers can be for a team.
The Steelers have made it a point to get fast on defense. It feels like the only position that somewhat lags behind is that Buck linebacker spot. Limited, downhill thumpers like Williams, Spillane, and others are great and fun. They still have their place in today’s NFL. However, in order for the Steelers to take the next step as a defense, a coverage ace paired with Bush would do wonders.
The great news is there are plenty of athletic linebackers with that potential. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Zaven Collins, Pete Werner, Baron Browning, Jabril Cox, and Cameron McGrone are just a few names that can fit this coverage linebacker mold that the Steelers need.
Collins has been repeatedly connected to the Steelers with their No. 24 overall pick in the first round. It might not necessarily come in the first round, but inside linebacker, particularly an athletic, coverage-first player, is an important need for the Steelers this draft cycle.