The Strongside-Inside “Buck” Linebacker position is one of great importance to the Steelers’ Defense in terms of its role being centered on leadership, stuffing the run, and having decent versatility against the pass when asked. Thus, after James Farrior was released this offseason, it was assumed that an upgrade or replacement was needed at the position. Pittsburgh however chose not to add a replacement for Farrior to their roster over the last couple of months, and it now appears that the Steelers are instead ready to let some holdovers from 2010 and 2011 compete for extended playing time and the starting “Buck” role in 2012.
The Recent Outside Search for “Buck” Turns Up Nothing
The Steelers have never been a team that has “made it rain” in Free Agency, and likely never will be one. With that in mind, experienced, 3-4 “Buck” Linebackers simply are not available on the Free Agent market very often. And even when they are, they usually will go to teams with the necessary means to acquire them, because they demand such a high price. So without deep pockets but with savvy and intelligent scouts, Pittsburgh looked towards the Draft to find a replacement Inside Linebacker.
From the very beginning, it certainly appeared that help at the “Buck” spot could be had for the Steelers in the form of Alabama’s Dont’a Hightower, an All-American, and a potential 1st Round Selection. Hightower, a player the Steelers were interested in, appeared to be a perfect fit as he fit the mold of a Steelers “Buck” Linebacker: Big guy, Strong-side potential, intelligent, athletic, and experienced in a 3-4 Defense.
I for one thought selecting Hightower was a sensible direction for the Steelers to go in to go in, and I am sure to many the pick made sense as well because of how the Draft was supposed to unfold. It appeared that all the Top-Tier Offensive Linemen (which Pittsburgh needed) would not fall to the Steelers in Round 1, and that Hightower would be a terrific consolation prize because the team appeared to need a replacement for Farrior, and appeared to need said replacement sooner rather than later.
Yet in a stroke of good fortune for Ben Roethlisberger, Guard David DeCastro fell to Pittsburgh in Round 1, and talented yet troubled Tackle Mike Adams fell to them in Round 2. Yet by Round 3, all top “Buck” prospects (Luke Kuechly, Hightower, and Mychal Kendricks who could have been a “Mack” or a “Buck” in my opinion) had already been drafted. (In an interview, Linebackers Coach Keith Butler described humorously how he still wanted Hightower at #24.)
Sure, the Steelers took an Inside Linebacker in Round 3. But according to Butler, Sean Spence figures to be more of a Weakside “Mack” player due to his svelte size at the moment (5’11″ 231 lbs.), his speed, and his nose for the football. In addition, Spence will likely see most of his playing time on Special Teams while he tries to learn the Steelers’ complicated Defense, as most current starters did at the beginning of their careers. And honestly, I see Spence’s addition as more of an upgrade to Pittsburgh’s Pass Defense, and a guy that early in his career can play in Nickel and Dime sub-packages and then eventually evolve into a 3-Down “Mack” player.
In spite of the fact that Pittsburgh passed on the three most viable “Buck” candidates which could have contributed in the present, the answer to their problems could in fact be on the roster at this very moment. The competition for the starting role will ultimately come down to one veteran against one youngster, with the veteran looking to extend his career, while the youngster trying to have his “break-out season.” Either way it works out, it will be a two man competition between Larry Foote and Stevenson Sylvester.
Larry Foote, as Butler discussed in the interview, will likely assume the starting role at the “Buck” position entering offseason workouts and Training Camp. And honestly, why shouldn’t he? Larry will be entering his 10th season with Pittsburgh, and of all the Linebackers currently on the roster, he probably knows the most about the Defense and its complexities as a whole. This should factor in hugely because it will likely be Foote lining the Defense up and calling out formations if he indeed assumes Potise’s old role as the “Buck.” While Foote spent his best seasons playing the “Mack” spot beside Farrior from 2004-2008, he should be able to do the best job of kicking over to the Strongside for the moment. To me, and I’m sure to many others, there is no substitute for Foote’s extensive experience in LeBeau’s Defense.
I do however believe that Foote would be best served as a 2-Down player this season. I could see him having the same troubles against Ends and Backs in the passing game on 3rd Downs as Farrior had last season. And while Timmons can be inconsistent at times in pass coverage, he does remain the team’s best option as a cover Linebacker until we see how far along Spence eventually is and whether or not he is ready to contribute. Still, Foote will be expected to be an effective and valuable contributor this upcoming season, and his value against the run and from a leadership standpoint is solid. But in the event that Foote is not up to the task, another potential “Buck” candidate will be waiting in the wings, and could pounce on his newfound opportunity.
Sylvester is the wild-card in this “figuring out the Buck” scenario, and I am intrigued to see how the one-time Special Teams demon progresses this season. With nobody new brought in to compete at the “Buck” spot, especially a highly touted and experienced player like Dont’a Hightower, Sylvester has been given an enormous opportunity to take advantage of this season. Sylvester also has an entire offseason to “learn the ropes” from a veteran like Foote, gain more experience with the 2nd and possibly even 1st team Defense, and learn under Keith Butler and Dick LeBeau. Plus, with Foote becoming an Unrestricted Free Agent after the 2012 season, Sylvester might end up being the only “Buck” on the entire roster with any sort of experience if the Front Office deems Foote expendable at season’s end.
If Sylvester performs well, or must take over in case of ineffective play or injury to Foote, he could do the organization and himself a huge favor by not only helping the team transition from a stand-out like Farrior with some solid play, but also eliminate a need on the roster as a relatively young and emerging player. Sylvester will be a Restricted Free Agent after the 2012 season ends, and his performance in 2012 and 2013 will go a long way in determining whether he is valuable enough for the Steelers to keep around and assume the “Buck” role into the future. If all goes according to plan, he could be lacing ‘em up alongside Timmons and Spence come 2013 or 2014.
The more I think about the Steelers upgrading their Offensive Line in Rounds 1 & 2 of the Draft with terrific prospects, the happier I become. Big Ben is the team’s most important investment, and he needs to be protected at all costs as he enters his 30′s, no questions asked. Sure, I would have liked if the Steelers had taken Hightower, and I’m sure most everybody would have been fine with the selection had DeCastro or any other Offensive Lineman not been on the board. Count me in as intrigued though as I watch how this “Foote/Sylvester/Buck” situation unfolds over the coming months, and I know that I will be intrigued to have these questions answered as the season goes on:
Can either of these players or a combination of both do a serviceable enough job in Farrior’s absence to put off the need at the position for at least a season? Or, can the young Sylvester step up and emerge as Farrior’s eventual successor and warrant the elimination of the need for help at the “Buck” spot in the future?
I am not technically rooting for one guy over the other, I am simply rooting for some-what of an effective solution at the position to be found. Pittsburgh is primed to have another season where they contend and play hopefully into February. Softening the blow of Farrior’s release will be key for this Defense if they wish to keep playing consistent football, and hopefully Foote and or Sylvester is up to the task.