By Jeremy Hritz
There may be no position more important to the success of the Steelers defense to the than outside linebacker. Additionally, no other position on the defense is more synonymous with the toughness and physicality of the Steelers than outside linebacker. Historically, edge rushers of the black and gold have owned space in the heads of offensive tackles across the league. Players like Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Jason Gildon, James Harrison, and more recently, Bud Dupree, and currently TJ Watt. While the Steelers are fortunate to have Watt in their starting lineup, as his play moves into elite territory, his starting counterpart, and the subsequent depth leaves many questions unanswered, which makes for much uncertainty heading into the 2021 season.
The One and Two
Watt headlines the outside linebacker group, as the starting weakside backer. Entering his 5th season and primed for possibly the largest contract ever for an OLB, he looks to add to his 49.5 total career sacks and to increase his splash on a very good Steelers defense. Missing out on Defensive Player of the Year again in 2020, there is the feeling among some Steelers writers that he has increased motivation this season to show his value and dominance at the position. His presence is one of the primary reasons the defense is a strong as it is, and he elevates the play of his teammates, and his mentorship and leadership will be needed for his 2021 partner, Alex Highsmith.
Highsmith enters his second season with the Steelers, and his first as the anointed starter to begin the season, as last year he was a rookie backing up Dupree and was suddenly inserted into the lineup when Dupree tore his ACL. Now, with Dupree in Tennessee, Highsmith enters the season as the starter with high expectations for him to carry on the tradition of Steelers outside linebackers referenced at the beginning of this article. As a rookie, Highsmith recorded 2 sacks and an interception and showed promise for what he can deliver as a starter from season’s beginning until the end. Highsmith is still a young and inexperienced player who needs to develop his pass rushing repertoire, in addition to his ability to set the edge and stop the run, so expectations should be tempered for him in year 2. For an in-depth look at Highsmith’s 3rd down rushes last season, check out this great analysis by Steelers Depot’s Alex Kozora.
Then Things Get Sketchy…
While there is confidence in the starters at OLB, despite the questions that remain about Highsmith, the depth behind them is barely adequate and unproven. First off the bench would be 8-year veteran Cassius Marsh, who played for the Colts before he was signed by the Steelers off of their practice squad. Marsh did not get the full Steelers experience last season, but still recorded snaps on the defensive side of the ball and special teams. Marsh did get a decent amount of snaps in the Cleveland playoff game when Highsmith experienced an ankle injury, and his performance left much to be desired. Whether this was attributable to his lack of familiarity and experience with the Steelers 3-4 defense, or just being physically overmatched by the Browns, if he is the first man up in 2021, he will have to show marked improvement.
Beyond Marsh, things get even more tenuous, as it is a group rookies, drafted and undrafted competing for the 3rd spot in the OLB rotation. Quincey Roche, 6th round draft pick in 2021, brings a high-level of production with him from his time at Temple and Miami, but whether or not that productivity can translate in the NFL has yet to be seen, not to mention he can adjust to the mindset and expectations of a complex 3-4 defense.
In addition to Roche, Jamar Watson out of Kentucky, who was also productive on the stat sheet in college, and Calvin Bundage out of Oklahoma State, who has versatility at both inside and outside linebacker, will engage in the competition to prove they belong in the NFL. It is worth noting, too, that Bundage may be perceived by the Steelers as more of a hybrid defensive player, with experience at both linebacker position, and also playing safety in high school, so he may not even be in the OLB room come camp time.
Also in the mix, but more than likely just a camp body, is Jamir Jones out of Notre Dame, a second year undrafted player who was released by the Houston Texans last season.
Expect a Signing at Some Point
Both Keith Butler and Mike Tomlin spoke to the thinness as the OLB position at the start of minicamp, and that a player could be added to the room before it is all said and done. Could it be an August trade for an outside backer that Kozora referenced on the podcast last week? Or, will Marsh or one of the rookies prove they are up to the challenge? One thing is for certain, as it stands now, if there is a major injury at the top two spots, this defense will be in trouble.