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Steelers ILB Overview: Plenty of Questions in New Group

The Pittsburgh Steelers inside linebacker group is new, and have plenty of questions surrounding them.

After several years of underwhelming play at the position, the Pittsburgh Steelers completely overhauled their inside linebacker room this offseason. 

There are plenty of new faces in the facility but also just as many question marks regarding the distribution of labor among the group. As we look for answers as the new year begins, this is a position to keep an eye on throughout the summer. 

Starters: Cole Holcomb, Elandon Roberts 

Despite suffering a season-ending foot injury last year with the Washington Commanders, the Steelers prioritized Cole Holcomb in what appeared to be a pretty deep off-ball linebacker free agency group. Now that he's secured a three-year contract with the club, Holcomb is likely to be relied upon as the go-to guy in the middle. A fifth round pick back in 2019, Holcomb's athleticism was one of the things that got him onto the field early on. His 4.51 40-yard dash speed certainly shows up on tape, as his ability to flow sideline to sideline is very evident.

Washington's stout defensive line certainly helped keep him clean and allow him to roam freely a decent amount at the second level. Pittsburgh should be able to provide similar benefits, reducing the amount of time that he'll spend fighting bigger blockers. The real test will be in coverage. 

Holcomb's athletic profile allows him to compete with a fair amount of receiving threats that he'll be responsible for but you wouldn't classify him necessarily as a coverage backer. However, due to the lack of other options on the unit at the moment, this responsibility will likely fall into his lap. Pittsburgh needs their prized free agent signing to be an impact player early on to set the tone for the rest of the room.

As far as Holcomb’s running mate is concerned, former Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots linebacker Elandon Roberts is the front runner here. After spending his entire seven year career in the AFC East, Roberts brings a physical, tone-setting presence to the Steelers linebacker corps. He’s a bit of a throwback for the position, someone who is a downhill thumper type who thrives in the box, particularly against the run. He’s also been an effective blitzer up the A gap in recent stops, registering a career high 4.5 sacks last season in South Beach.

Roberts has also been a factor on special teams and a well recognized locker room leader off the field. He’s a very skill set specific role player who shouldn’t be asked to do much in space, especially in coverage where he can be a liability at times. But he’s a useful player on early downs and brings a violent play style that seems to mesh well with the AFC north. Expect him on the field on early downs when the Steelers open the season barring a big acquisition in the next couple of weeks.

Fighting for a Spot: Mark Robinson, Tanner Muse, Nick Kwiatkoski

Similar to Roberts, Mark Robinson is also a bit of a throwback, hard hitter type in the middle. He saw limited playing time in the last month of the season and flashed a bit against the run, showing a willingness to come down in pursuit and lay the wood on running backs. There’s a very small sample size so far but Robinson must continue to improve as a tackler, where he struggled in both the preseason and regular season in 2022. Even as a seventh-rounder, Robinson is interesting enough to keep on the roster as a developmental run defender for the future.

Back in the 2020 NFL Draft process, Tanner Muse wowed scouts with a 4.41 40-yard dash, which led to him skying up draft boards. That electric combine performance led to him being over drafted, and is now on his third team four seasons. Muse has earned himself respect by using his impressive athletic profile to become a key special teams contributor, handling 425 snaps for the Seattle Seahawks over the past two seasons, according to Pro Football Reference. 

Muse, a converted safety in college, has rarely played on defense at the professional level but the special teams upside is intriguing.

Another veteran journeyman that was recently added to the Steelers roster is Nick Kwiatkoski. The former fourth round pick back in 2016 played a good chunk of snaps at linebacker for the Bears and Raiders during the 2020-2021 seasons before being relegated to special teams duty this past year. Similar to Muse, his primary value comes on special teams where he’s been a four phase contributor essentially throughout his entire career in the NFL. With Danny Smith seeing so many of his mainstays leave the building this off-season, there’s a real opportunity for some of these guys to snatch roles up this summer.

Fighting for a Practice Squad Spot: Chapelle Russell

Possibly the biggest unknown of the entire group is third-year pro Chapelle Russell. He has less than 100 snaps throughout his career to date with none of those coming in 2022. He's facing a pretty significant uphill battle in terms of making the final 53-man roster and is more than likely looking for a chance at the practice squad. 

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