View Full Version : The Steelers' Curious Approach to the Mack & Buck ILB Positions

Hawaii 5-0
05-09-2012, 01:32 PM
Talkin' Inside Linebackers: A Curious Approach to the Mack and the Buck

by Neal Coolong on May 9, 2012


As Jim Wexell pointed out on Twitter Wednesday morning, the report of a trade between the Steelers and the Jets nearly being consummated during April's draft says, among other things, the Steelers did not have Alabama LB Dont'a Hightower at the top of their board in terms of expected picks.

Had Bruce Irvin not been drafted by Seattle, the Steelers would have moved up to No. 16 in the draft, and selected OG David DeCastro. The Jets backed out of the deal, opting to take the second of two targeted players - DE Quinton Coples - at 16 instead of risking losing both he and Irvin by trading down to 24.

Hightower was eventually taken by New England, and the rest will be history later on down the line.

As it is, the Steelers did not draft a buck linebacker of the future, indicating they're comfortable with veteran Larry Foote while continuing to groom Stevenson Sylvester for the future.

What Are Some Traits Of a Mack and a Buck Linebacker?

Defensive terminology varies largely depending on the coach's scheme. In a traditional 4-3 defense, linebackers are commonly identified as Sam, Mike and Will - match the first letters of where they would line up in relation to the offensive formation - strong, middle and weak.

The buck linebacker in the Steelers' defense is more like the mike - or middle - linebacker. That position holds responsibility for defensive play calls, alignment and communication on the field. As far as between the whistle, the buck is commonly the player filling gaps against the run, along with short middle zone pass coverage.

The mack linebacker is more of a scrape-and pursue defender (partially resembling the role of a will linebacker in a 4-3 defense). He's responsible for the outside edge, and takes a wider angle to get outside the box and contain the run. A mack doesn't need to have that same downhill attacking style of the buck, and is commonly more athletic.

What Role Will Sean Spence Play?

Lawrence Timmons is the Steelers' starting mack linebacker, and LBs coach Keith Butler made no bones about stating third-round draft pick Sean Spence would be a mack linebacker.

What's interesting about Spence is how much smaller he is than Timmons. Of course, that's a major reason why Spence was a Day 2 draft pick and Timmons was taken 15th overall. But with Spence, the Steelers add an interesting dynamic to their defense.

While Spence will not be labeled as a safety, I think his future direction is, essentially, one of a roving safety.

Looking back at the Steelers' win over New England in Week 8 of 2011, we saw the Steelers playing in nickel and dime packages for most of the game. Sylvester left the field, along with NT Casey Hampton, but oftentimes, we saw SS Troy Polamalu down in the box with Ss Ryan Clark and Ryan Mundy playing a Cover 2 shell.

Polamalu was essentially playing the mack linebacker position.

Obviously, Polamalu is going to be effective just about anywhere on the field, but bringing in a coverage-heavy linebacker who can provide at least some run support while getting the most out of the position in terms of coverage seems like a pretty effective strategy.

Spence is very fast and has a nose for the ball. He did well in coverage, and if he's pairing up with Timmons while the nose tackle leaves the field in lieu of another cornerback, the Steelers could have a very strong coverage unit.

I'm probably getting ahead of myself, Spence's playing time is obviously yet to be determined, but that kind of scenario, in a pass-happy league, could be the role they'll ask him to play in the future.

Is This Foote's Last Year?

With his contract expiring after this season, it most likely is. Foote is built in the mold of an old-school gap-filling middle linebacker, something that appears to be falling off in terms of priority in the league. Middle linebackers are coming in with much more coverage ability than they used to, and teams are looking for for three-down freakishly athletic LBs in the mold of Patrick Willis and Luke Kuechley.

Certainly, he may come back in 2013 to provide depth, but as for now, his highest and best use is really to serve as a continuity bridge between the old Steelers defense and the emerging youth among the front seven.

For as important as the buck linebacker has been for the Steelers over the past 10 years, they clearly said they feel the next buck is on the roster already - Sylvester. He's obviously not in the mold of Willis, but they appear to be surrounding him with outstanding athletes (i.e. Timmons and Spence).

How Good Is This Unit?

Last year is a really difficult sample to use when determining the overall success of the group. Timmons played out of place for much of the season. Farrior missed time as well. One of the most glaring weaknesses was their struggles in coverage in the base package, which is likely the biggest reason for both the release of Farrior and the selection of Spence. It's really just a different game than it was even three years ago.

Because of that, inside linebacker is one of the more intriguing positions to watch in training camp this year. How will they be utilized? In saying that, it's hard to gauge how good they are, because I see much of their roles adjusting more to offensive trends than staying strictly with what they've been in the past.


05-09-2012, 02:36 PM
Good read! Love Spence. Hope they use him this way!

05-09-2012, 03:08 PM
good read, indeed. Foote can 'play the position', but it is clearly not a position of strength in 2102 for us. Slow-A-Foote, as I call him - too much playing "o'layyyyy"

I hope SLY comes of age - curious to see what Carter can do too.

all teams have holes and this is one clearly for us entering the 2012 season. that and S help / back up. Not impressed what Mundy does - and we have NO ONE beyond that.

El-Gonzo Jackson
05-09-2012, 04:19 PM
This is what confused me. When you already have Timmons as a mack LB, then why draft Spence because he is a Mack LB in this system. If Foote is to play the Buck, then what is the long term plan?? Move Timmons to the Buck LB??

Its why I was pimping prospects like James Michael Johnson, who I think could play the Buck.

05-09-2012, 10:03 PM
Why not start spence at the mack and move timmons to the buck after a year. Haven't heard much about this. Thought I would throw this out there.

El-Gonzo Jackson
05-10-2012, 12:35 AM
Why not start spence at the mack and move timmons to the buck after a year. Haven't heard much about this. Thought I would throw this out there.

It could happen, but that would mean next season the Steelers will have 2 ILB's starting at new positions. Maybe its the plan if Spence works out. I just thought they would draft a guy that is a Buck.

05-10-2012, 12:51 AM
It's certainly a possibility. It would definitely be their most athletic options in terms of defending the pass, and both of them are instinctual and explosive enough to make plays in the running game, even though neither, I suppose, fit the typical run stuffing model. I don't know if that could happen as early as next year, but you never know. Of course there's always Sylvester as well.

Hawaii 5-0
05-11-2012, 02:58 PM
What part of our team is the weakest?

by Mechem on May 11, 2012

Steeler Nation is excited. And rightly so. We've had a fantastic draft, and we definitely made a solid attempt at improving our biggest weakness. I'm sure most people would unanimously agree that our biggest weakness, at least up until a few weeks ago, was our Offensive Line. Well with the addition of two top picks, we project to be one of the best O-line units for years to come.

Of course, nobody can predict 100% how our newly drafted players will pan out. But with the encouraging growth seen in Pouncey and Gilbert, and the new highly touted picks of DeCastro and Adams, many here feel we'll have an O-line with at least 4 good components, and possibly 5.

I agree with those sentiments wholeheartedly. But it leaves me wondering, what is our next weakest position? Where do we have to start focusing on now? Having dealt with our biggest problem, the next challenge is identifying the 'next biggest concern'.

A year ago, our O-line was terrible and our Secondary was ready to bite the dust. These were the two biggest concerns on the table. Well it seems like last year we righted the ship in the Secondary. Lewis developed as a good playmaker, Gay played very well in his nickel role, and Ike dominated as usual. WIth a healthy Polamalu we were unstoppable.

In other areas we grew stronger, particularly in the WR department. Despite losing Ward, the addition of Cotchery proved wise down the stretch, and the development of Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown was profound.

Our offense seems ready to take a leap forward, especially with the new schemes designed by Todd Haley. With two Pro-Bowl receivers, a solid corps at RB, and one of the best QBs in the game, along with a new and improved O-line, I think offense might actually be the least of our problems for a while.

So that leaves the defense as the chief concern.

Starting up front, the D-Line looks ready for a complete turnover. While we have yet to see Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward take the reins, they've been getting a lot of playtime. With Aaron Smith gone, and Hampton out for the forseeable future, we're sure to witness the birth of a new D-line. With Ta'Amu now on the team, we can expect a solid young line for years to come.

Our defensive backs are improving at corner, although Safety is becoming a concern. Polamalu has a propensity for injury, and Clark is no longer as fast or as reactive as he once was.

But the strength of the D has always been its vicious pass rush. The Linebackers rule the field. When we get pressure, we get turnovers. And skillful WR-QB combos don't have time to develop their plays against our secondary. We've gotten away with this for years, but we saw how hard it was when our pass rush didn't live up to its usual expectations.

Last year in particular, many people noted the lack of turnovers. A large portion of this in my opinion was due to the injuries sustained by LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison. Rarely playing on the field together, they still had respectable statistics, but not the Pro-Bowl, DPOY numbers they've had in recent history.

And more concerning was that behind them, we had virtually no one. Timmons slid over for a large part of the year, and was relatively ineffective at OLB. As Farrior got older, we saw Foote was a slightly lesser version of the same.

Our Buck ILB is probably our biggest weakness. With Foote and Sylvester on the roster at the moment, a lot of question marks arise. Foote is getting older, and plays well but hardly commands the field the way Farrior did. Sylvester is still an unknown at this point. The speculation of Sean Speance entering this mix seems to have ended with coaching saying he's destined to backup Timmons at Mack ILB.

The key to identifying a weakness is determining how much opposing teams can exploit that weakness. We saw this at times, for instance large TEs lining up over small CBs (William Gay) and strong pass rushers dominating Jonathan Scott. To me, nothing was more easy to exploit than fast RBs like Ray Rice flying past Farrior or Foote on 3rd down. Because we depend on a zone defense, it's even more important for those guys to move fluidly through zones and cover middle routes.

This is to me the only position we've really lost talent in. Hopefully our staff finds a way to fill this gap. The recent free agent visits are encouraging. Our depth at LB is very shallow right now, and we definitely can highlight at least one position that needs improvement sooner rather than later.

I'd also make an argument for a kicker, but I like to think with our new offense we'll be able to survive with Suisham for another year.

Safety, RB, WR may be concerns in the future, but for now ILB is our biggest position of need. Our defense is our best asset, and it's at its best when 11 quality guys are on the field. We saw last year, losing 2-3 of those guys at once hurt our game considerably. With the injection of youth at other key positions, ILB seems to be the one spot lagging behind. Hopefully if the other 10 guys play their best games, we can hide this deficiency for another year, but it's been a liability in recent seasons, and it hasn't gotten any better.

I'm really hoping we land a FA ILB that can compete for that Buck position, and solidify this defensive unit for this season while we look for the next LB in the draft.


05-11-2012, 06:10 PM
I would rather Foote over all of them on running downs when we face the Ravens and Ray Rice again. Foote is slower than gramma on ambien in coverage, but he is by far, he best a shedding blockers, and is the best run-stuffer we have on our LB corps.

That said, it looks like they are grooming Spence to maybe take on some of Polamalu's roles, as the mad samoan isn't getting any younger either. Is pretty exciting to see what Dick Lebeau puts on the field this year.

05-11-2012, 07:09 PM
It's certainly a possibility. It would definitely be their most athletic options in terms of defending the pass, and both of them are instinctual and explosive enough to make plays in the running game, even though neither, I suppose, fit the typical run stuffing model. I don't know if that could happen as early as next year, but you never know. Of course there's always Sylvester as well.

Jack Lambert was 6' 4" and 220 pounds. Ray Lewis entered the league at 240. Farrior claimed by the end of a season he normally played in the 220's. It's all about instincts and the players desire to help his team win. 15 years ago, if you told me that a 5' 6" running back would make it big I might have laughed at you.

05-11-2012, 07:24 PM
I think Sylvester is going to surprise some folks in the next couple of years. Along with Timmons and the new kid we will be alright.

Hawaii 5-0
05-14-2012, 10:39 PM
MONDAY, 14 MAY 2012


-- YOU: It has been said that Sean Spence is penciled in at the mack linebacker spot to back up Timmons. However, I've heard that Timmons has the ability to play any of the linebacker positions. Is there any possibility that Timmons would slide over to the buck position and Spence would start beside him at the mack?

ME: Where they had the rookies in their first camp doesn’t really matter. Timmons could play either position and I think he’d be better playing Farrior’s old spot anyway


05-15-2012, 06:19 AM
Speed is very important on defense in todays NFL. Teams are loading up with more WR sets and a small fast RB in the backfield that can catch. Drafting Spence is a great move , IMO, it shows the Steelers aren't slaves to the traditional roles of years gone by. Spence, once he learns the D, will be a great asset. He flies to the ball, makes plays and will be a lot better at covering backs in passing situations.
The way the game is played anymore you need to get faster on D, the Steelers have. We should be able to score more on O now with the new additions of Decastro, Adams, Rainey in this draft and our new OC, we should be able to score more, which will take pressure of the D.

05-15-2012, 01:55 PM
MONDAY, 14 MAY 2012


-- YOU: It has been said that Sean Spence is penciled in at the mack linebacker spot to back up Timmons. However, I've heard that Timmons has the ability to play any of the linebacker positions. Is there any possibility that Timmons would slide over to the buck position and Spence would start beside him at the mack?

ME: Where they had the rookies in their first camp doesn’t really matter. Timmons could play either position and I think he’d be better playing Farrior’s old spot anyway


I agree with Ed, that Timmons is the future buck.

Hawaii 5-0
05-16-2012, 01:39 AM
Poor Linebacker Play In 2011 Likely Culprit For Inflated Tackles For Ryan Clark

May 15th, 2012 by Dave Bryan

Pittsburgh Steelers free safety Ryan Clark had a great statistical season last year as far as tackles go. He was in on 100 tackles total with 71 credited to him as being of the solo variety, where he was the primary, or in some cases, the only player involved in making the stop. Both of those numbers were career highs for Clark, but that is not necessarily such a good thing though.

The Steelers run defense struggled at times last year and allowed 4.0 yards per carry on the season. Clark recorded 33 of his 71 solo tackles last year against the run according to my stats and on those plays the defense allowed 6.1 yards per carry. Of those 33 plays, 21 were deemed successful for the offense. A play is deemed successful when the following occurs: 40% of yards-to-go are gained on 1st down; 60% of yards-to-go on 2nd down; or 100% of yards-to-go on 3rd & 4th down. So basically 64% of those 33 plays were successful that Clark was relied upon to make the primary stop. 9 of those 33 plays resulted in first downs and 6 of them went for 10 yards or more.

22 of the assist that Clark had last season were also against the run and they equated to a 5.4 yards per carry on those plays with 50% of them deemed successful and 6 of them resulting in first downs. 2 of the 22 went for 20 yards or more.

So in total Clark was involved in 55 tackles against the run, which was 55% of his total tackles. Now Clark is not to blame here, in fact he should be lauded for being such a willing tackler and helpful in run support. Where the problem mostly lies is that Clark should not be relied upon so much to be the primary tackler. Teams rushed 399 times against the Steelers in 2011 and Clark was 6 solo tackles shy of recording solos on 10% of all those rushes.

Buck linebacker James Farrior was credited with just 41 solo tackles against the run in 2011 with 22 of those running plays being deemed successful by the offense. Farrior was only involved in 50 rushing tackles in total in 2011. Lawrence Timmons, who did see quite a bit of time at outside linebacker in 2011 because of injuries, was in on 57 total run tackles with just 37 of them being solo. Timmons had 55 solos against the run in 2010 as teams rushed a total of 333 times against the Steelers. Add in another 27 assist against the run for Timmons in 2010 and he was involved in 25% of the rushes against the Steelers that season in which he recorded.135 total tackles. Timmons had just 93 total tackles in 2011, roughly a third less than 2010.

With Farrior now gone and both LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison back healthy on the outside, Timmons will get to go back to his natural MACK position, hopefully to stay. Larry Foote now takes over at the BUCK position with Farrior now gone and hopefully this all shores up the linebacker group to better play the run and should result in the defense not having to rely so much on Clark to make primary run stops.


Hawaii 5-0
05-16-2012, 02:23 AM
Top 10 Position Battles to Watch in Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp

By Nick DeWitt (Featured Columnist) on May 15, 2012


Starting Inside Linebacker Combatants

Stevenson Sylvester, Larry Foote, Sean Spence


I'm limiting the battle to these three players simply because I don't see a guy like Chris Carter finding his way into this conversation. That said, he might do that. Surprises happen each season.

This was a lot less confusing before the draft. At that point, there was no question that the team would draft Dont'a Hightower and have him battle with Sylvester. Foote would remain the backup.

Then they went and took David DeCastro in Round 1 and things got fuzzy.

Adding Sean Spence doesn't help. The guy is a missile. I could see him being the same kind of problem for an offense that Troy Polamalu has always been. That's scary for opponents (but it makes me and probably the rest of Steelers Nation very, very happy).

This is now an open competition, but I think Foote is more there for pushing the youngsters than as someone who could actually win.


This is tough. I think that Sylvester will win in the end, though. He's done well in limited spots and he is a beastly hitter. I like Spence to have more of a special role this season, although he should be the first guy in when someone struggles. It'll take him time to grasp everything as well, making Sylvester the more likely candidate.


Hawaii 5-0
05-22-2012, 01:21 AM
A lot has changed at ILB

by Bob Labriola - Steelers Digest

Since the way the position is played is changing, it’s appropriate that the people being asked to play it are changing as well.

When the Steelers defense takes the field as a unit during the first of 10 OTAs today, there will be no No. 51 in the center of the huddle. There still is a No. 51, but rookie Sean Spence will be on the sideline when the call goes out for “first Okie.”

James Farrior is gone, and while there will be attention paid to the issue of who replaces him at inside linebacker, an even bigger issue for the Steelers as they prepare for the 2012 NFL season is how the position of inside linebacker has evolved and whether they have the personnel to deal with that.

Used to be that inside linebackers made tackles on running plays. Find the ball, get the man carrying it on the ground. That’s how Jack Lambert played it once Chuck Noll switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4 in the early 1980s. Then David Little after him, and Levon Kirkland after him and Earl Holmes after him and Farrior after all of them. But running the football isn’t as big a part of contemporary NFL offenses, and teams have become both unapologetic for that and creative in ways not to do it.

Take the Baltimore Ravens, for example. A division rival, a team that embraces the violence of the sport, an offense that still will line up a 260-pound fullback in front of a 218-pound tailback. Yes, the Ravens do that, but they now also have the capability to complement that beef with a couple of athletic tight ends who have to be covered down the field. The 275-pound inside linebacker might work OK when the task calls for butting heads with Vonta Leach and getting Ray Rice on the ground, but when it comes to running with Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson, well, not so much.

And besides, as linebackers coach Keith Butler explains it, even against the run, the position has come to require more stealth and speed than strength and power.

“The day of the (isolation) with the middle linebacker is almost gone,” said Butler. “Everybody is using tight ends as fullbacks, and sometimes they use them when trying to lead and sometimes they don’t. A lot of stuff today is misdirection and trying to fool you or out-number you one way, and then give you a different look coming back the other way. A lot of that requires the linebackers to have the ability to read now-a-days, not so much to get down and stuff a hole. Sometimes you have to (stuff a hole) on the goal line when you have to take on a big running back, but we’re taking on Ray Rice, we’re not taking on Jerome Bettis anymore.”

Without Farrior, someone will be taking on the role of defensive signal-caller, and both Butler and coordinator Dick LeBeau firmly believe that someone will be Larry Foote. And both of them are quite comfortable with that.

“I don’t think we will miss a beat there. Larry has called signals quite often,” said LeBeau. “The other comforting factor for me is we are signaling in the calls anyhow, so whoever is out there is going to be taking our calls. It’s the poise and the field generalship of the man whose voice they are hearing in the huddle – he has to command their respect, he is our quarterback, he is the voice they hear. I’m very glad Larry Foote is going to be that guy.”

The other guys the Steelers have in the upper portions of the depth chart at the position are Lawrence Timmons, Stevenson Sylvester, Mortty Ivy, and the aforementioned rookie draft pick, Spence. From these five most likely will be the group the Steelers take into the start of the regular season, and the group figures to include no more than four.

While much of the early interest could focus on the Steelers adapting to Farrior’s absence, the critical element of the whole thing should be the continued development of Timmons. In the run-up to the 2011 season, Timmons, the former No. 1 pick of the team’s 2007 draft, looked very much like the next in the long line of excellence the Steelers have had at linebacker. Evidently management agreed, because Timmons was rewarded with a contract extension before the team left Saint Vincent College last summer.

The two sacks and one interception Timmons would contribute during the regular season weren’t up to the splash-play expectations he carried last season, but both Butler and LeBeau commended him on some of the team-first things he did that likely impacted his individual statistics.

“Lawrence Timmons moved around. He’s played inside and outside,” said Butler in reference to Timmons being the go-to guy when the Steelers were forced to compensate for the injuries to James Harrison and/or LaMarr Woodley.

“I would prefer to leave Lawrence inside and give him a chance to get some of the recognition. I feel like he’ll play well enough to get the recognition that he deserves, because I believe he’s one of the better linebackers in the league. If we can keep him at one position, inside, then he has a chance to be one of the better linebackers in the league.”

Another interesting contestant here is Sylvester, a fifth-round pick in 2010 who looks most like the prototype inside linebacker, and who has done some prototypical things in terms of what the position long has required.

“Stevenson has made his living doing a great job in the special teams aspect, and I always found that guys who can excel in that area generally can transfer it over to scrimmage play,” said LeBeau. “You’re moving in space, locating the ball, getting through blockers and getting the ball carrier on the ground. These are exactly the things you have to do as defensive player. I’m usually comforted by a defender who is doing well on special teams. Sylvester has done that. He played some for us, not a whole lot of game experience, but in the preseason when he went out there he did a very fine, capable job. He’s going to have to step up and give us depth there. I’m very confident that he will.”

And as for Spence, right now he’ll need to follow the path Sylvester initially used to earn a roster spot, because, as Butler already said, “He’s not going to start at ‘mack’ linebacker over Lawrence Timmons. That isn’t going to happen. He’s going to help us on special teams.”