Steelers’ L.J. Fort, Tyler Matakevich excel in Vince Williams’ absence
Vince Williams grimaced in the Pittsburgh Steelers locker room late Sunday afternoon.
The inside linebacker described being forced to watch from the sidelines because of injury for the first time in his six-year NFL career as “pretty terrible.”
But then Williams smiled.
“But you know what? The win makes it better. I’ll take it like this every time if we get the win, and I am just so proud of them boys,” he said.
Sunday, “them boys” were the two men who combined to take Williams’ spot at right inside linebacker.
With Williams out because of a hamstring injury, the Steelers’ struggling defense turned to a a pair of players with a combined 10 seasons on NFL rosters but who had combined to start one game.
But Tyler Matakevich and L.J. Fort helped anchor the middle of the Steelers’ defense during a 41-17 victory against the Atlanta Falcons at Heinz Field.
“Tyler and L.J. played so well,” outside linebacker T.J. Watt said. “We have so much confidence in them that we don’t have any wavering opinion whether they are in the game or not.
“They just go do a great job of going about their business as if they are the starter each and every week, and it shows. When they go out there, we don’t miss a beat.”
Fort started his NFL debut for Cleveland as an undrafted rookie out of Northern Iowa on Sept. 9, 2012. He had a sack and an interception that day, but he didn’t start another game.
That streak stayed alive Sunday because Matakevich (three seasons, 36 career games) earned his first NFL start when he took the field for the first defensive snap.
Matakevich played most first and second downs and obvious run situations, with Fort typically coming in on passing downs, third downs and in the dime subpackage.
“It was a good rotation that was successful for us today,” Fort said.
The Steelers defense allowed season lows in points and yardage (324).
There were myriad reasons for the overall performance. But at the least, Matakevich and Fort held their own. They combined for 10 tackles. Matakevich helped limit Devonta Freeman to 32 rushing yards.
Fort was all over the stat sheet: six solo tackles, a sack, three quarterback hits and a fumble recovery in the end zone for the Steelers’ final touchdown.
“Quality effort and play,” coach Mike Tomlin said, “but not only by L.J. A couple other guys had to step up, and I appreciated their efforts. L.J. played big football for us today.”
Matakevich, a 2016 seventh-round pick, and Fort, a waiver claim in 2015, are core special teams players and also were part of that unit that had a strong game Sunday.
“We would love to have Vince out there, (and) hopefully we get him back next week,” starting left inside linebacker Jon Bostic said, “but in that ‘next-man up’ mentality, there can’t be a drop-off.”