Now healthy, Tyler Matakevich aiming for bigger role with Steelers defense
The second week of organized team activities began Tuesday, and inside linebacker Tyler Matakevich lined up with the first-team defense for the fourth practice in a row.
Matakevich is appreciative of the snaps he has taken alongside starter Vince Williams. Forgive him, though, if he doesn’t see those repetitions as a sign he will be Ryan Shazier’s replacement in the fall.
“Everyone knows you don’t earn a spot in OTAs,” Matakevich said after practice. “You know it happens in Latrobe. It’s nice now, but when everyone gets the pads on, that’s when the real camp starts.”
When training camp commences in less than two months, Matakevich is hoping his chance to secure a starting job goes better than the first time he was called upon to step in for Shazier.
It was a few series after Shazier suffered his spinal cord injury Dec. 4 in Cincinnati that Matakevich had to come off the field, too. His left shoulder, which had popped in and out of place several times since an October game in Kansas City, was damaged to the extent he could no longer make a tackle.
So with Shazier out for the rest of the season, Matakevich’s time as his replacement lasted all of 41 snaps.
“It’s very frustrating because these opportunities don’t come around too often,” Matakevich said. “That’s why when you get an opportunity, you have to make the best of it and run with it. I felt at a little disadvantage. I knew I was going to get an opportunity, but I knew I was just going to do it with one arm. The good news is we got it fixed, and we’ve got a new season (ahead).”
Limited to special teams the rest of the season, Matakevich underwent surgery three days after the Steelers’ divisional playoff loss to Jacksonville. He hit the surgery trifecta, getting his labrum, rotator cuff and biceps repaired.
“I’ve got a new wing, so I feel good,” said Matakevich, who has not been limited in his offseason practices.
Matakevich initially banged up his shoulder trying to break up a pass on a fourth-and-2 play in the fourth quarter Oct. 15 against Kansas City. He landed awkwardly on his shoulder, and it limited him to just four defensive snaps over the next five games.
“I played the whole year with pretty much a bum arm,” he said.
With Matakevich unable to play on defense after the Bengals game, the Steelers signed Sean Spence off the street, tried outside linebacker Arthur Moats at the inside for a game and used special teams player L.J. Fort on passing downs.
The Steelers defense was gouged for four 100-yard rushing performances in the final five games, including playoffs. Three times in that span, the Steelers yielded more than 150 yards on the ground, including 164 to Jacksonville in the 45-42 playoff loss.
Could Matakevich, the all-time leading tackler at Temple and winner of Bednarik and Nagurski awards as a senior, have helped plug the leaky run defense in Shazier’s absence?
“If I’m healthy, I think it’s a different story. I only had one good arm, so it’s a little tough to do.”
Knowing Shazier would not play this season while recovering from spinal stabilization surgery, the Steelers signed inside linebacker Jon Bostic in free agency and added potential hybrid linebackers in free agent Morgan Burnett and first-round draft pick Terrell Edmunds.
Matakevich, though, was never out of the picture as Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert was quick to remind reporters — often unsolicited — several times in the offseason.
“Had he not gotten injured, we may have had a whole different conversation going on because Tyler is a very highly productive special teams guy who really hasn’t gotten to play (defensively),” Colbert said after the NFL Draft. “Between Jon and Tyler, we don’t know what we have with those two, quite honestly, because Jon is new to us, and Tyler will be in the rotation and competition as well.”
When OTAs began last week, Matakevich worked with the first-team defense and Bostic the second, a decision that likely was a nod to the third-year linebacker’s seniority and familiarity within the Steelers’ 3-4 scheme.
Matakevich was paired with Williams again Tuesday. His offseason goal is to improve his pass coverage, a deficiency the Bengals exposed while Matakevich was on the field in place of Shazier.
“I’m just out there trying to get better,” Matakevich said. “Whether if it’s with the ones, twos or threes, I’m just trying to get better, perfect my craft and help this defense. As of right now, it’s with (the first team), so I’m trying to do whatever I can to help out.”