PITTSBURGH — The Steelers will likely make at least one change at linebacker following the injury to Cole Holcomb. Holcomb was placed on the injured reserve list on Monday. That is a massive loss for the defense. Mark Robinson will become the third linebacker in the rotation alongside Elandon Roberts and Kwon Alexander. But Mykal Walker and Tariq Carpenter could be two players on the team’s practice squad that they turn to and elevate from the practice squad.
Both players hinted they could be on the way up from the practice squad. Walker is a veteran who is in his fourth season. It is quicker to get him up, as he has seen almost everything in this league, but the verbiage is just different. But inside linebackers coach Aaron Curry is teaching him the techniques of the defense so Walker can be told his assignment and go out there and make plays. It’s an intelligent way to get Walker up to speed; he feels he is already there.
“I have (Aaron Curry), a great coach, getting me up to speed, being with him the last couple days, getting at it,” Walker said. The linebackers have been great. Kwon, I have known him forever, he’s really going to help me. (Roberts), he’s the mastermind of the operation. They are really getting me up to speed. I just want a chance.”
Walker can play MACK and BUCK linebacker roles, which project as the MIKE and WILL linebacker equivalents. He has played all three linebacker spots in a 4-3 and can even blitz off the edge. But his coverage upside is something that sticks out as a specialty. That could be his gateway to more playing time, especially since Pittsburgh lost coverage upside with Holcomb out. When Roberts sat out of practice on Thursday, Walker got a chance to play both spots.
“Whenever anyone asks what I am, I always say I am versatile,” Walker said. “You know, I played MIKE and WILL, and that really helped me visualize everything for a day. It’s a big help. All that’s different is verbiage. You know, Cover 3 will be Cover 3 everywhere, but the verbiage and techniques are a little different. They’re doing a great job getting me up to speed and learning those things.”
Carpenter Could be Another Option
Carpenter, on the other hand, has a different journey than Walker. Walker stood out at Fresno State, but Carpenter is a converted safety to linebacker. That offers him some unique coverage upside, too, and he is among the more athletic players on the bottom of the roster. Carpenter has some serious juice and will lay the wood. He expects to come up for the game, too. While both may not come up despite expecting it, Carpenter is generally newer to the linebacker position.
Just like Robinson, that is a blessing and a curse. But Aaron Jones is on the other side in this one, meaning coverage at the second level is wildly important. Pittsburgh will look to snuff that out, with Carpenter potentially on the other side. His background gives him that unique footing to rely upon.
“I have a little bit of butterflies, but I’m just excited to go out there and play,” Carpenter said. “To be with the Steelers, honestly, to put on that jersey, it means something. I just want to go out there and have fun on Sunday.”
Carpenter, 24, has played all over the defense in his career, with time at safety, edge rusher and inside linebacker while playing with the Green Bay Packers.
The Packers drafted Carpenter in the seventh round of the 2022 NFL Draft out of Georgia Tech. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound Carpenter played in 14 games as a rookie, recording eight tackles in all situations. The vast majority of his reps last season came on special teams.
Over two preseasons, Carpenter has been used as a free safety, box safety, linebacker, and slot cornerback. This season, he played 63 snaps of defense over the first and third Green Bay preseason games and had six tackles and a pass defended. But Pittsburgh has him slotted in squarely as a linebacker. The athleticism pops. He ran a 4.52-second 40-yard dash and posted an 11-foot-4 broad jump and 39-inch vertical, all elite for his position. So, if it is his turn to make some noise, Carpenter will bring those unique traits to the table.