Throw it all at the wall and see what sticks. That was Omar Khan’s approach to the inside linebacker position this offseason.
What if everything sticks?
Of course, I’m being a little over the top. It won’t. But so far, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ inside linebacker battle has been competitive. Through six practices, nearly everyone in that room has appeared positively in my notes at one time or another. Today, it was Nick Kwiatkoski, who had a breakup on rookie RB Darius Hagans in 1v1 coverage drills, one where the defense is at a heavy disadvantage, before blowing up Hagans in run session, forcing a fumble. It was a monster hit.
Newly signed Kwon Alexander has been aggressive, vocal, and intense, fitting right in with the Steelers’ defensive ideals. It’s hard to think he’ll be a reserve-only to begin the season. He didn’t sign to solely play special teams and wait his turn. The dude has basically never sat on the bench, starting 86 of his career 95 games, and he’s going to make a defensive impact in 2023.
Mark Robinson is someone I’ve been high on. Though the veteran additions suggest the coaching staff isn’t as enthused, Robinson has been cycling in with the first-team the last two days, snagging some reps from Elandon Roberts (who did get dinged up Tuesday, but he practiced in full Wednesday). Robinson steamrolled RB John Lovett in backs on ‘backers and takes good angles to the ball downhill. Like Robinson, Roberts flattened running backs in backers on ‘backers and has been active in run periods of 11 on 11.
Cole Holcomb was the team’s big free agent signing at the position and he’s strung together three quality practice. He’s made the most number of plays in coverage, including on Wednesday. He ran step-for-step with Najee Harris on a wheel route, forcing an incompletion. Earlier in camp, he’s had multiple breakups during 11 on 11, a fantastic full-extension dive to break up a checkdown to Harris and a contest and incompletion over the middle on Pat Freiermuth. His run defense also looks solid.
Even Chapelle Russell, a relative unknown on the roster, has had his moments. He’s a high-energy player who plays inside-out against the run and is best coming downhill. Coverage isn’t his strong suit but he looks like practice squad material.
The only name not mentioned is Tanner Muse, who hasn’t stuck out terribly positively or negatively in my notes. He blanketed Najee Harris deep down the left sideline in a 1v1 rep today, though Kenny Pickett’s throw was perfect and Harris made an awesome over-the-shoulder grab. Muse also recovered a Darius Hagans fumble Tuesday. He brings a strong special teams resume and still could make this team, though the path following Alexander’s signing has reduced Muse’s odds.
It’s still early. Very early. Pittsburgh has gone down the “excited about the new, veteran inside linebackers” road before with underwhelming results. But the group does look good. It certainly looks better. And there should be enough competition and talent that the Steelers find at least serviceable options this season.