Inside linebacker depth is a concern for the Pittsburgh Steelers heading into the 2020 season.
So it’s decidedly good news that second-year ILB Ulysees Gilbert III is healthy again. According to ESPN Staff Writer Brooke Pryor, it was a fractured L-5 vertebra in his lower back that sidelined him for the second half of his rookie season.
Apparently, it’s an injury that bothered Gilbert “on and off since college,” but was causing him chronic pain in his hip area and lower back through all of training camp, the preseason, and the first seven games of the 2019 regular season.
But the pain worsened considerably during the November 3 home game against the Indianapolis Colts.
“That Monday, the next after the game, it was the worst pain I ever felt,” said Gilbert, in an interview with Pryor. “I didn’t know what was going on. That’s when they shut it down for me.”
Pittsburgh Steelers Linebacker Depth 2020
Now medically cleared to play again after six months of rest, Gilbert is expected to compete for a backup job at insider linebacker, a position where there are roster spots available. He hopes to build on the contributions he made on special teams during his rookie year, in on five tackles over the course of seven games.
While fellow second-year linebacker Devin Bush is a rising star—named by Pro Football Focus as a potential ‘breakout’ player for 2020—and Vince Williams is an established run-stuffer with pass rush skills, there is no proven NFL talent behind them.
It leaves the door open for Gilbert, not to mention Robert Spillane, a second-year player out of Western Michigan, who is behind Williams on the depth chart.
And that’s pretty much it behind Bush and Williams, unless an undrafted free agent or first-year player makes an impact out of the blue. The only other alternative might be to use either Terrell Edmunds or 2020 sixth-round draft pick Antoine Brooks Jr. in a hybrid safety/linebacker role.
From Ryan Shazier to Devin Bush
Essentially it’s a good news-bad news situation for the Steelers when it comes to inside linebacker. Mike Tomlin recently told Steelers fans that he’s expecting Bush to be a difference-maker in 2020, saying, “We are excited about him taking a significant step between year one and year two as a quality inside linebacker for us, being an all-situations type player: To be the type of player to play to a Pro Bowl-caliber level the way Ryan Shazier did.”
But the Shazier comparison is apt in another less appealing way. An injury to Bush could leave Pittsburgh with a gaping hole in the middle of its defense, in much the same way that the loss of Shazier was difficult for the Steelers’ defense to overcome. In fact, the Steelers weren’t able to adequately replace Shazier—who suffered his career-ending injury in December 2017—until drafting Bush, which required trading up to the tenth overall pick in the 2019 draft.
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