Tim Benz: Steelers must take long look at rookie ILB Matthew Thomas

September 19, 2018

Steelers linebacker Matthew Thomas provides coverage on tight end Ryan Malleck during practice Aug. 7, 2018 at Saint Vincent College.

Here’s how my first attempt to interview Steelers undrafted rookie inside linebacker Matthew Thomas went. It happened after practice Thursday.

Me: “Matthew, got a few moments?”

Thomas: “I don’t know, man. I don’t really talk.”

Me: “Oh. You don’t do interviews?”

That’s when fellow inside linebacker Jon Bostic chimed in, one locker down.

Bostic: “No, man. He doesn’t ... talk. He just doesn’t talk.”

Me: “On the field?”

Bostic: “At all.”

That’s when I looked over my shoulder and saw another inside linebacker, L.J. Fort, chuckling and nodding in agreement.

Thomas seemed to take umbrage with that.

“I make more calls than that,” Thomas retorted, eventually getting his voice above a whisper.

“You said you make more calls,” Bostic questioned. “You don’t make no calls, bro!”

Next thing I knew, I was in the middle of about a four-way discussion between various defensive players about who lined up right, who lined up wrong and who dropped on a play I paid zero attention to in practice.

“Just run fast,” a dismissive Bostic ordered, giving up on the debate.

And there it is. That more or less sums up. That’s been the debate over Thomas since his Florida State days. Lots of speed and athleticism. But does he know where to line up and where to run?

Thomas is built similarly to the injured Ryan Shazier. Thomas is two inches taller and two pounds heavier. Thomas isn’t quite as fast, but he can still run the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds.

Thomas opened up his motor when he nearly tracked down Packers wide receiver Jake Kumerow in the open field last week.

But the knocks on Thomas always have been he fails to unfurl all that potential because he lacks instincts, awareness and technique.

“Running is running. But you’ve got to learn the system,” Thomas admitted. “That’s going to come eventually.”

Coach Mike Tomlin was asked Thursday if he has seen growth from Thomas in the preseason.

“Yeah, but (the rookies) all have,” Tomlin said. “If they didn’t, we wouldn’t be talking about him because we would’ve fired him by now.”

Quite a ringing endorsement, coach.

Inside linebackers coach Jerry Olsavsky was a bit more extensive in his assessment.

“I’ve been pleased with him,” Olsavsky said. “He’s picked up the defense. He’s not perfect. But he’s athletic. And he’s not afraid.

“He’s done a great job. And we like him now.”

Pro Football Focus’ numbers sometimes come into debate. If you are a believer, so far they have Thomas rated as one of the top 10 rookies leaguewide in the preseason on defense.

Whether it was Shazier early in his career or Kendrell Bell in 2001 and ’02, there are some Heinz Field-era examples of sacrificing a little polish at inside linebacker in the name of pure athleticism.

The Steelers should consider it again this year with Thomas. Maybe not as a starter right away. But there are snaps to be won at the position.

The converse is true of Bostic and Tyler Matakevich at inside linebacker. There seems to be faith in those two knowing the defense. The questions are simply about whether they can cover enough ground and make enough tackles to be effective.

For my money, give me the athlete who needs on-the-job training as opposed to the well-schooled player who can’t get from Point A to Point B as quickly.

This Steelers defense needs impact plays -- turnovers, tackles for losses, sideline-to-sideline coverage -- to get the ball back. Thomas is more likely to do that than some of the other inside linebackers.

Knowing what to do and where to go is, of course, essential. And if Thomas is utterly incapable in that regard, then this argument is moot.

But if Thomas can get the proper compass as to where he should go, he’s going to get there faster and with more force than anyone else the Steelers have at the position.

Making him learn quickly should be a top priority for Tomlin and Olsavsky.

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