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Why Payton Wilson will start sooner rather than later for the Steelers

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By: Brandon Andrews

Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The third-round pick could end up being a huge difference maker as a rookie

The Pittsburgh Steelers selection of N.C. State linebacker Payton Wilson in the 2024 NFL Draft once he’s on the field, should give the Steelers when paired up with new Steelers inside linebacker Patrick Queen the most athletic play making duo they have had at the playmaking since they had their former linebacker duo of Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons paired together for three seasons.

The Steelers Current Situation

If the season started today, the starters at inside linebacker would be Patrick Queen playing the Mack position in their defense. He would be on the field for all three downs, reading and reacting making plays in the running game as well as the passing game. Elandon Roberts would be the other starter playing the Buck position in the defense. That position is more of a hammer, taking on pulling guards blowing up the running game, and occasionally dropping back into coverage.

Roberts has a lot of former Steelers inside linebacker Vince Williams in his game. Offensive players aren’t so much getting tackled by him as they are on the receiving end of a collision. He’s been everything the Steelers could have hoped for, while being better than expected when dropping into coverage. But, Wilson has more range to him, and would allow the Steelers to move Queen around in their defense making it harder for opposing offenses to know where he’ll be.

The Steelers also have Cole Holcomb at the inside linebacker position, however, there is no timetable on his return from the significant leg injury he suffered last season. If he’s able to receive medical clearance and return this season, even in a limited capacity, that would really give the Steelers some flexibility to play around with some additional defensive packages. The Steelers would have the kind of depth at inside linebacker that they haven’t had in some time. Queen will bring some of that to the defense, but more will still be needed to improve the sack production. It can’t all be on T. J. Watt he’s great and should have two defensive M.V.P. awards, however getting consistent pressure from other areas will only serve to draw some attention away from him and Alex Highsmith who’s no slouch himself.

In the mean time though, Wilson will have to get himself up to speed in getting the playbook down, and sticking to inside linebackers coach Aaron Curry like glue. He’d probably would be wise to buy special teams coach Danny Smith a gallon-sized bag of chewing gum. Meaning before he sees significant burn on defense, he’s probably going to need to make his presence felt on special teams and earn his way.

How Defensive Coordinator Teryl Austin can best utilize Wilson’s talents?

Clemson v NC State
Photo by Lance King/Getty Images

The Steelers are not getting after the quarterback with consistency outside of T.J. Watt for the most part, and Alex Highsmith. That is to be somewhat expected as their 3-4 Defense is designed for the outside linebackers to get pressure on the quarterback and generate sacks. But, they have to get pressure, sacks, and plays on the quarterback from other areas of the defense. Watt and Highsmith are the gas that fuels the engine of the teams defense, but by the Steelers getting better quality pressure, sacks, and plays on the quarterback from other places it will further serve to confuse opposing offenses.

Wilson made his mark creating havoc behind the opposing team’s line of scrimmage. He’s also adept at dropping back into coverage, the Steelers ask a lot from their linebackers and the Steelers even with an improved linebacker group still struggled once injuries crept into their starting rotation and they asked their linebackers to drop back into coverage.

As great as Watt is and has been, combined with as good as Highsmith has shown to be, they can be even better if they are freed up by the middle of the defense being able to get more pressure and sacks. Middle linebackers generally don’t boast high sack numbers in the Steelers Defense, but more pressure and collapsing the middle of the pocket should create more opportunities for the edge rushers. In addition to that it should serve to make them an even harder defense to run against, as well as take pressure of what looks on paper like a suspect secondary.

Wilson should begin the season in a rotation with Roberts while serving as depth for both he and Queen. Wilson possesses a nose for the football, he put up some pretty impressive tackle-for-loss stats at N. C. State. The Steelers finally got improved play from their revamped inside linebacker room during the 2023 season, by getting more splash plays and increased tackles for losses from the group.

However, Holcomb’s status is completely up in the air, and while Queen is a much-needed shot in the arm he can certainly be the man in the middle. He cannot be the sole impact player at that position by himself, enter Payton Wilson with his abilities. Austin has to get Wilson and Queen on the field together in the Steelers base defense. The kid’s going to make mistakes while he learns on the job, the upside of that pairing is too good to pass up.

Originally posted on Behind the Steel Curtain – All Posts