If you haven’t heard, the Pittsburgh Steelers went into this offseason with a big need at inside linebacker, and came away with just one in free agent singing Jon Bostic.
It was a haul that many Steelers fans found underwhelming. From 2009 to 2017, the Steelers had at least one former first-round draft pick patrolling the middle of the field as an inside linebacker with either Lawrence Timmons or Ryan Shazier in the starting lineup, and sometimes both.
Now Bostic, who was a second round pick by the Bears in 2013, has the highest pedigree of the group that includes Steelers’ 2013 sixth-rounder Vince Williams, 2016 seventh-round pick Tyler Matakevich and a group of undrafted free agents led by fifth-year man A.J. Fort.
It’s an interesting combination of athleticism and experience, but it’s not the same type of fear-inducing unit the Steelers possessed earlier this decade. But the team remains convinced that the less-heralded players can get the job done, and one of the reasons for that is the trust in inside linebackers coach Jerry Olsavsky.
Olsavsky, a Youngstown native and former Pitt and Steelers linebacker, knows what it takes to be overlooked and get the job done. A tenth round pick out of Pitt in 1989, he went on to have a 10-year NFL career and played in Super Bowl XXX.
He started coaching for the Steelers in 2010 and has been inside linebackers coach since 2015. In all of that time, either Timmons, Shazier or both has been “the man” in the middle of the Steelers’ defense.
For the first time, the Steelers are relying on Olsavky’s ability to coach players above and beyond the talent level they possessed when they entered the organization.
“I’ve been blessed,” Olsavsky said during the Steelers’ minicamp. “You’ve had two first rounders for a long time. Great players. Hopefully, I coached them a little bit and it just wasn’t all raw talent. Now, you’ve just got to work hard and try to get the guys to believe they can do what those other guys could do.”
From a scheme standpoint, Olsavsky doesn’t think he’ll have to make any schematic changes to offset the loss of Shazier’s speed in the middle of the defense.
“Tyler can do a lot of the techniques that we adapted for Ryan,” Olsavsky said. “I’m not going to go ask Ryan to hit an offensive guard every play. That’s how I would play. I’m different. I’m more of a tank and those guys are fighter jets. You just have to look at your players and say, ‘Hey, what can they do?’”
Part of Olsavsky, who was noted as a fierce competitor during his playing days, and the idea of coaching up a group of players that might not have as much physical ability to a high level is probably one of the most rewarding things a coach can do, but he said coaching highly talented players can be just as difficult, if not more so.
“The guys that get picked higher have more talent and more boxes that you can check off real easy,” Olsavsky said. “There’s other things, though. When you’ve got a lot of first rounders, you’ve got to realize that you’ve got to say, ‘Hey, they got put into a position where they can come in and just start. I’ve got to work for it.’ I don’t think of it as a challenge. It’s a challenge to coach first-rounders. How are you going to tell a guy like Ryan what to do? He makes all kinds of plays. … We’re lucky because both of the guys we picked were great to coach.”
Olsavsky has had success at those tasks. Much of the Steelers’ defensive ability to overcome the loss of Shazier will rely on his ability to adapt to the new challenges that await.