Matthew Thomas insists he’s prepared if needed to play significant role for Steelers this week

October 4, 2018

Steelers linebacker Matthew Thomas tips the ball out of Panthers quarterback Kyle Allen's hand and pull it in and takes it to the one-yard line Thursday Aug. 30 2018 at Heinz Field

If Matthew Thomas is needed for a significant role on the Pittsburgh Steelers defense this week, the undrafted rookie linebacker insists he’s ready.

“I’ve been practicing a lot, studying a lot, getting to know what I’ve got to do,” Thomas said before practice. “So I felt pretty comfortable.”

Starting inside linebacker Vince Williams left Sunday night’s loss to Baltimore during the fourth quarter because of a hamstring injury. Though L.J. Fort filled in for Williams the remainder of that game, could Thomas be a more longer-term fill-in, if needed?

Coach Mike Tomlin didn’t shoot down that idea when asked about during his news conference Tuesday. Even before Williams’ injury, Thomas got first-team reps in practice last week and he was given ample opportunity to play during the preseason, including some snaps with the starters.

“I definitely feel like I belong (in the NFL),” Thomas said.

A five-star recruit out of high school and multiple-year starter at Florida State, Thomas has the pedigree and the raw athleticism to be an NFL linebacker. No linebacker at the February NFL combine jumped farther in the broad jump or vertical leap than Thomas; only three linebackers in the past 10 years have had a better vertical jump than Thomas’ 41.6-inch leap (two of them, coincidentally, are the Steelers’ Ryan Shazier and Bud Dupree).

Thomas ran the sixth-fastest 40 time (4.58) of the 27 linebackers who ran at the 2018 combine.

“He’s got some talents,” Tomlin said. “He’s learning what to do. As he gains more knowledge and a good baseline in play, he’ll be given the opportunity to participate when it presents himself.

If Williams can’t play - and there’s no guarantee he can’t or won’t Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons - the Steelers options are Fort, Tyler Matakevich and Thomas. Thomas has the most athleticism of that group, but he also is by far the least experienced.

Thomas, though, said he has come a long way in regards to understanding the defense and knowing his assignments from where he was at the beginning of training camp.

“It’s a lot different; I understand more, I’m not just out there just (freelancing) anymore,” Thomas said. “I know what I’m doing assignment-wise and technique and all that. So I feel lot more confident.”

Thomas likely could have been a top-half-of-the-draft pick if not for some knocks against him. Thomas missed a college season because of academic ineligibility, and he also served a six-game suspension for violating team rules during his sophomore season.

Then there’s the critiques from scouts, summed up by this in his official NFL.com draft profile: “He doesn’t always play with a competitive demeanor.”

But Tomlin repeatedly leans on the mantra that he doesn’t care what players did before they arrived in Pittsburgh, only what they show here. And Thomas showed during training camp practices (he was a standout at Saint Vincent), in preseason games (team-high 25 tackles, sack, forced fumble) and in special teams during the regular season (two solo tackles) that he has potential as a playmaker that belies his undrafted status.

“It’s been very hard, just being underrated and trying to prove yourself,” Thomas said. “So that’s what I’m trying to do, use it as motivation.”

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