Pittsburgh Steelers preseason football kicks off in eight days when they host the New York Giants at Heinz Field. Exhibition games might be short on big-name stars, but they are certainly not short on competition.
Outside of perhaps one or two positions, the coaches won’t be using August games to determine who starts opening day. Preseason is the battle for the back-ups. Players have just four games, typically a total of only four to eight quarters of football, to earn their jerseys or pack it up and move along.
The Steelers typically carry nine total linebackers. Let’s break down the battle for the remaining four spots to watch this preseason:
- Lamar Woodley
- Jason Worilds
- Jarvis Jones
- Larry Foote
- Lawrence Timmons
*Sean Spence (Physically Unable to Perform List)
Incumbents: #54 Chris Carter (3 years NFL), #57 Adrian Robinson (2 years NFL)
On the Rise: #45 Alan Baxter (R-Northern Illinois)
Jason Woirlds wasn’t the only one unhappy to see the Steelers draft outside linebacker Jarvis Jones in Round 1. Chris Carter knows there are less opportunities to prove he belongs in Pittsburgh. Carter has shown a good burst to the ball in passing situations but is easily overpowered against the run. He gained playing time last season after the injuries to both Woodley and Harrison.
Unfortunately, the injury bug caught Carter too, knocking him back to injured reserve and opening the door for Adrian Robinson. Robinson was the talk of preseason last year with his ability to pressure the quarterback. He was active for 12 games last season. However, he struggles in coverage and Carter outperformed him on special teams.
This year’s newbie linebacker turning heads in camp is Alan Baxter. His power and quickness has the Twittersphere all abuzz about the unknown player from Northern Illinois. Baxter was invited to the combine and had a good 40-yard time (4.68 seconds) but went undrafted after playing defensive end in college. At only 6-feet and 240 pounds, he is making the switch to 3-4 OLB so it’s hard to see him as a threat to either veteran. Keep an eye on No. 45 just in case.
Incumbents: #55 Stevenson Sylvester (4 years NFL), #40 Marshall McFadden (1 year NFL), #51 Sean Spence (PUP List)
On the Rise: #44 Vince Williams (R-Florida State, 6th round), #49 Terence Garvin (R-West Virginia), #48 Kion Wilson (4 years NFL), #47 Brian Rolle (2 years NFL),
Stevenson Sylvester, special teams ace, has more competitors creeping up to take his place this season. In fact if he plays as well in preseason as he has in camp, Marshall McFadden has a good chance to unseat him as the top backup inside linebacker. He led the Steelers in tackles last preseason but did not make an impact in the regular season.
McFadden hits like a truck and has shown the quickness to cover running backs in training camp. McFadden also told reporters he spent the offseason studying Dick LeBeau’s defense and can now play the “Buck” and “Mac” ILB positions as well as call the plays.
Out of all the players in the “on the rise” category, rookie sixth-rounder Vince Williams is probably the most likely to compete for the final available linebacker spot. Williams may not be the fastest guy on the field, yet he is a sure tackler and instinctive. He is also intelligent; he was calling the plays in OTAs and assembling his fellow rookies into the correct positions. Not bad for a guy who just got the playbook in April.
Williams is more of a “Buck” ILB like veteran Larry Foote. For Williams to avoid the practice squad, he will need to prove he knows the playbook, making the experienced Sylvester expendable.
Who says preseason games are boring and meaningless? Up next, we will cover the big position battles on offense: wide receiver and running back.