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Old 05-09-2012, 01:32 PM   #1
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Default The Steelers' Curious Approach to the Mack & Buck ILB Positions

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.

http://www.behindthesteelcurtain.com...buck#storyjump
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Old 05-09-2012, 02:36 PM   #2
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Default Re: The Steelers' Curious Approach to the Mack & Buck ILB Positions

Good read! Love Spence. Hope they use him this way!
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Old 05-09-2012, 03:08 PM   #3
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Default Re: The Steelers' Curious Approach to the Mack & Buck ILB Positions

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.
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Old 05-09-2012, 04:19 PM   #4
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Default Re: The Steelers' Curious Approach to the Mack & Buck ILB Positions

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.
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Old 05-09-2012, 10:03 PM   #5
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Default Re: The Steelers' Curious Approach to the Mack & Buck ILB Positions

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.
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Old 05-10-2012, 12:35 AM   #6
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Default Re: The Steelers' Curious Approach to the Mack & Buck ILB Positions

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Originally Posted by fujirama24 View Post
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.
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Old 05-10-2012, 12:51 AM   #7
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Default Re: The Steelers' Curious Approach to the Mack & Buck ILB Positions

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.
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Old 05-11-2012, 02:58 PM   #8
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Default Re: The Steelers' Curious Approach to the Mack & Buck ILB Positions

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.

http://www.behindthesteelcurtain.com...is-the-weakest
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Old 05-11-2012, 06:10 PM   #9
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Default Re: The Steelers' Curious Approach to the Mack & Buck ILB Positions

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.
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Old 05-11-2012, 07:09 PM   #10
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Default Re: The Steelers' Curious Approach to the Mack & Buck ILB Positions

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Originally Posted by Dodens Grav View Post
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.
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