For a guy whose roster spot was anything but secure coming into the 2021 season, Ulysees Gilbert III certainly made an impact in the first week of the season.
Retaking the special teams role that he manned before consecutive back injuries cost him the end of his 2019 season and almost all of his 2020 season, Gilbert made two plays that turned out to be crucial in the Steelers’ victory.
On the opening kickoff, Gilbert found himself nearly 10 yards behind streaking Bills returner Isaiah McKenzie, but he put his head down, and after Cam Sutton turned McKenzie back to the inside, Gilbert was able to run him down and make the tackle at the 24-yard-line, saving a touchdown.
“To me, it’s just a hustle play,” Gilbert said. “It’s just something that I just felt like as a football player and as a competitor, is what you do. Never quit on a play. That’s what I’ve been learning from a young age and it’s always stuck with me. There’s just something in me just to continue to run. You never know what can happen.”
The Steelers defense held Buffalo to three points after the big play, helping the team stay in the game while the offense scuffled through the first half.
Later in the game, after the Steelers had taken the lead, it was Gilbert that helped ice the victory, recovering a punt blocked by Miles Killebrew and waltzing into the end zone to put Pittsburgh up two scores.
The play was a huge factor in the Steelers upsetting the Bills and escaping Buffalo with a win despite not putting together their best effort.
“I don’t think it really set in for me until I got to the sideline and just sat down,” Gilbert said. “Just to see all the guys so excited and see all my teammates come around me, and we’re all excited by just making a play was just amazing to me.
“It’s something that I’ll remember forever, not just because the game was so big because, but because it’s playing with your brothers, day in and day out, all the things we went through at camp and to this point, it just felt amazing.”
A sixth-round pick out of Akron in 2019, Gilbert showed promise both as a special teamer and as an inside linebacker as s rookie, but the suffered a back injury after seven games. In 2020, he again dealt with back issues that held him to just four games.
This offseason, the Steelers went out and acquired inside linebacker Joe Schobert in a trade and drafted Buddy Johnson in the fourth round, signaling that Gilbert’s spot on the team entering 2021 was far from secure.
But he seemingly beat the odds and has found a way to not just make the team, but be productive, as well.
“It just felt amazing just to be out there with my teammates once again, feeling good, feeling healthy and just being able to play the game that I love,” Gilbert said.