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Lessons the Steelers need to learn from this year’s final four, Part Two: Inside Linebackers

Welcome to the second installment of our two part series of articles focusing on valuable lessons that the Steelers should be learning from the remaining participants in the 2023-24 NFL playoffs.

In my first article earlier this week, I focused on the center position for all four participants. All four remaining franchises have received superior performances from their center positions this season, at or near Pro Bowl and All Pro levels. This is an important common denominator for the four teams left standing on the cusp of the Super Bowl. 

The center position has been devalued in recent seasons, especially with draft evaluators. I see the position quite differently however, and thankfully the outstanding performances of this year’s final four centers gives credence to the importance of the position. An elite center is the anchor of the offensive line. They provide strength, stability, and leadership where it matters most. Center is the most team first position on the field. Divas need not apply. Long live the legend of Mike Webster, the greatest center to ever play the position.

In Part Two of this series, we will look at another extremely important position that has been devalued in recent years. It also happens to be another position that all four remaining teams have received above the line performances at this season, including multiple Pro Bowl and All Pro participants. Are you noticing a trend yet?

The position I am referring to is the inside linebacker position.

Interesting observation; three of the four remaining participants run a 4-3 defense,  which features a true middle linebacker. Researching this article brought back cherished memories of my youth, mainly focused around Jack Lambert. The Baltimore Ravens are the only 3-4 remaining of the bunch.

The Ravens employ the best inside linebacker tandem in the NFL with Roquan Smith and Patrick Queen. The in-season trade for Smith last year took the Ravens defense to another level. Smith’s elite level performance and presence allowed Queen to finally tap into his immense potential. They form the most athletically imposing tandem in the league, and they are the heart and soul of the best defense in the NFL. If the Ravens are able to lift their third Lombardi Trophy at the end of this tournament, then this superior ILB tandem will deserve every accolade that will inevitably come their way. The legendary Ray Lewis must be proud that they are living up to the standard he set during his HOF career.

The Kansas Chiefs feature the most underrated inside linebacker in the NFL in my opinion; Nick Bolton. Bolton is as steady and fundamentally sound as any off ball linebacker in the league. He has no true weakness, and he squares up his targets beautifully. Then he drops the hammer. Fundamentally sound, plus a hard hitter. Who could ask for anything more? The Chiefs round out their strong 4-3 trio with William Gay and Dru Tranquill. I actually wrote about Tranquill as a possible free agency target for the Steelers last offseason. He has proven to be an excellent addition for the Chiefs, and has helped take their defense to new heights. The Chiefs defense has been more consistently reliable than their offense this season.

The San Francisco Forty Niners have arguably the best inside linebacker in the NFL leading their defense in Fred Warner. Warner has reached rarefied air in my opinion: combining athleticism, intelligence, and intensity; all on an elite level. Even on a defense filled with star performers, nobody questions who the leader is. On or off the field. Warner is old school tough, and could have excelled in any era. I can’t think of a higher compliment. The Niners round out their linebacker positions with Dre Greenlaw and Owen Burks. Greenlaw is an emerging superstar, deserving of Pro Bowl consideration in my opinion, and Burks is no slouch. Best group of linebackers in the NFC.

That brings us to the Detroit Lions. The Lions have efficiently utilized the NFL Draft to turn an obvious weakness into a position of strength for their defense. The Lions linebackers aren’t on par with the three aforementioned units, but they are closing ground in a hurry. They are a talented young group, with solid depth. They are led by the steady veteran presence of Alex Anzalone in the middle, but the young talent that rounds out the trio gives the group enticing potential. The Lions went against modern roster building beliefs when they selected Jack Campbell, one of my favorite draft crushes for the Steelers in the 2023 draft class, with one of their first round selections. He was an instant starter, and has helped solidify a real weakness on the Lions defense. Derrick Barnes rounds out the trio. Barnes is a talented young thumper, blessed with impressive athleticism and mobility. Check out his game sealing interception of Baker Mayfield to send the Lions to the NFC Championship game. The Lions also have young depth in Malcolm Rodriguez and James Houston waiting to be called upon. The Lions have done an excellent job of drafting and developing young talent at the position.

So what can the Steelers learn from each of these franchises? First off, they can learn from how each group was constructed. Some of the personnel was acquired through bold trades and shrewd free agency acquisitions, but the majority have been drafted and developed. That has been a weakness for the Steelers in recent years.

Omar Khan and company did an outstanding job of totally revamping the off ball linebacker position last offseason. Cole Holcomb, Kwon Alexander, and Elandon Roberts represented a huge upgrade for the Steelers, prior to their unfortunate injuries. However, they were all acquired via free agency. Regardless of how successful their offseason rehabs turn out, the Steelers must get younger at the position. The Steelers haven’t drafted and developed the position successfully since Vince Williams. Finding their next young stud leader at the position is required in becoming a dominating defense once again.

As I mentioned earlier with Ray Lewis and the Ravens, the Steelers have a long history of greatness at the position. The standard has been set. Now it’s up to the current Steelers to live up to it.

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