NFL Football

Steelers LB Matakevich ready for starting shot

(AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File)

By WILL GRAVES

AP Sports Writer

PITTSBURGH (AP) Tyler Matakevich's signature red beard is a jagged mess.

All knots and snarls, a series of small mushroom clouds exploding from his jowls.

The Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker knows it's time for a trim but he's a little particular about the way he wants it cut, so Matakevich decided to hold off until he could get back home to Connecticut, where a good friend has doubled as his barber for years.

Then organized team activities and minicamp started and the itching nearly became too much.

"I sort of forgot that it's a little different when it's hot out," Matakevich said with a laugh.

The player nicknamed "Dirty Red" by coach Mike Tomlin as a rookie two years ago expects to have the beard a little more under control when the Steelers report for training camp next month.

Considering the workload Matakevich could carry in 2018, that's probably wise.

The seventh-round pick in 2016 will be given every chance to earn the starting linebacker spot created by Ryan Shazier's spinal injury.

No pressure or anything, all Matakevich has to do is take over for a Pro Bowler and good friend who also happened to be one of the most physically gifted players in the NFL.

Matakevich is doing it by leaning on Shazier, who has become a de facto coach while continuing his recovery from the collision in Cincinnati last December that altered both the course of his career and his life.

When Matakevich wasn't sure about a specific coverage during a workout on Tuesday, he trotted over to Shazier's golf cart and started peppering him with questions.

"I saw like, `Hey Bro, what are we doing here?' Stuff like that," Matakevich said. "He just helps you out. I'm so thankful for that."

And for the opportunity to play at all. The Steelers took a flyer on Matakevich when they selected him with the 246th overall pick in the 2016 draft following a highly productive college career at Temple in which he recorded at least 100 tackles in each of his four seasons.

The numbers and the awards - such as being the 2015 American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year - were hard to dismiss.

So too, were the other ones. Like his sluggish 4.81-second 40-yard dash time at the combine and his 6-foot-1, 235-pound frame that makes him more fire hydrant than fighter jet.

Still, Matakevich carved out a roster spot by making himself a special teams ace - he's already blocked two punts in two seasons - and is keenly aware that in most places the prospects for seventh-rounders is iffy at best. Pittsburgh, however, is not most places.

"These coaches love you," Matakevich said. "They're going to tell you what you need to do to be successful. They're going to put you in the right spots and at the end of the day it's on you. You've got to be able to do whatever it takes."

Inside linebackers coach Jerry Olsavsky understands Matakevich isn't Shazier or former Steeler Lawrence Timmons, but he is refusing to hold Matakevich to a different standard.

"He might not be big enough," Olsavsky said. "He might not line up like Lawrence and Ryan ... but if you just look at the plays he's made here, you're like, `wow, that guy's made a lot of plays.'"

The key will be doing it on a more regular basis and staying on the field.

Shortly after Shazier's wrenching exit, Matakevich found himself on the sideline when the left shoulder problems he'd been battling all season simply became too much to bear. He spent most of the season wearing a harness during games to protect it after initially tweaking his labrum in Kansas City in mid-October.

When a Bengals player bumped into him in the third quarter on Dec. 4, the shoulder was cooked for good.

"They tried, even once they got it in I was like, `Alright, let's go' and they were like `You're not going anywhere,'" Matakevich said. "It was frustrating because those opportunities don't come around too often."

There's a small three-inch scar on the front of Matakevich's left shoulder, a reminder of the procedure that took care of his labrum, his rotator cuff and his biceps in one fell swoop. The arm that he admits was "just hanging there" for much of last season is now fully healthy.

The front office is so encouraged by Matakevich's progress it opted not to use a draft pick on a linebacker for the first time since 2010.

General manager Kevin Colbert made it a point to bring up Matakevich's name unprompted in the aftermath and Matakevich heard the message loud and clear even as the team signed well-traveled veteran Jon Bostic as insurance.

"It makes you really believe in yourself because you know that the guys upstairs believe in you," Matakevich said.

There's no question that Matakevich has earned the belief of the guy he may line up alongside. In many ways he's following in Vince Williams' footsteps. A former sixth-round pick himself, Williams is now the elder statesmen in the linebackers' room thanks in part to his skill and work ethic. He sees the same things in Matakevich.

"He's smart. He understands the game. He understands what it takes to be a pro," Williams said. "He takes care of his body. He studies. That's really all you can expect from him right now."

Well that and maybe a haircut by the time the team reports to Saint Vincent College on July 25, when Tomlin is expected to shout "Dirty Red" early and often. That's fine by Matakevich.

"You can call me whatever you want," Matakevich said. "Just keep me around."

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Updated June 14, 2018

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