When the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Stevenson Sylvester a few years ago, two to be precise, he was initially greeted with some curiousity. That curiousity emanated from the fact that Sylvester was seemingly a better fit as the weakside linebacker in a 4-3 and played a position similar to that in college.
Any skepticism about Sylvester’s potential was quickly forgotten as he impressed fans on special teams with his physical talents. Sylvester quickly became a key cog in the Steelers’ vastly improved kickoff and punt coverages. His combination of size and speed, not to mention his ability to knock down ball-carriers, had onlookers frothing at the mouth over his potential.
Many saw Sylvester as the next in the line of great Steelers’ linebackers. A certain coup that the team had snuck past the other 32 teams to take in the fifth round of the draft.While he excelled on special teams and was immediately an important figure, his contributions to the defense were minimal. During his first two seasons Sylvester was under no pressure to do anything but play special teams and focus on honing his craft for the future. With James Farrior, Lawrence Timmons and Larry Foote ahead of him, the Steelers were set with quality veterans ahead of him on the depth chart.
Last season those veterans were still there, but an injury to James Farrior and multiple other injuries to outside linebackers pushed Sylvester closer to the top of the chart.
Sylvester started against the New England Patriots officially, but didn’t feature much as Dick LeBeau used a very different defensive approach on that day. When Sylvester didn’t play that day, some began to question his development and whether he could ever live up to the hype that had born from his play on special teams.
After notching 14 tackles in his first season, Sylvester only had seven tackles in his second.
Regardless of the reasons, whether it be a physical limitation, mental incapacity or simply a dip in form, Sylvester will be looking to rebound this season. Despite being touted as a potential replacement for James Farrior earlier this off-season, Larry Foote has secured that job and the Steelers then selected another linebacker in the draft this year.
When the Steelers took Sean Spence out of Miami in the third round this year, it was somewhat reminiscent of when they took Sylvester. Spence ideally would be the weakside linebacker in a 4-3 defense, but the Steelers took him to play inside in their 3-4.
While Sylvester struggled with a knee injury during the preseason, Spence was exciting even the most scrutinizing linebacking experts, or in other words Keith Butler, with his play. Spence has great speed, instincts and explosion. During off-season workouts, training camp and preseason, Spence showed everything on defense that Sylvester had previously shown on special teams.
It appeared that injury was potentially going to cost Sylvester his roster spot as Spence stepped above him on the depth chart. Ultimately any gripes that Sylvester could have had about his own health were made redundant when Spence suffered his own knee injury in the final preseason game. A much more significant one.
Spence has a torn ACL and LCL with a dislocated patella. Even if you have no clue what all that means, you can probably figure out that he won’t be playing football again this season. Spence was placed on IR prior to the announcement of the final 53-man roster. Sylvester was named among the 53.
Without Spence, Sylvester should immediately be the team’s third choice at inside linebacker. That position carries some importance entering the season and will likely carry on through the whole year. Not only are linebackers with coverage ability more important on third down today than ever before, but the Steelers also enter the season with injury question marks over two outside linebackers in James Harrison and Jason Worilds.
If Worilds and Harrison were to miss time, the Steelers would have three options to replace them. Chris Carter is the most logical direct replacement, while rookie Adrian Robinson has impressed enough to potentially earn an opportunity also. However the Steelers also have the opportunity to move Lawrence Timmons to outside linebacker, as they were forced to last season.
Despite some very impressive early signs from Carter, it is likely that Dick LeBeau would prefer to play his more experienced players without Harrison or Worilds on the field. That would mean third year linebacker Sylvester, when healthy, would be the next man up for the linebacking corps.
Sylvester needs to seize any opportunity entering his third season. He may still only be 24, but unless he wants to just be another special teams body, then he needs to start making an impact on the field with the defense.
The talent is there. Once he is healthy, the opportunity will be there too.