Pitts­burgh LB Matake­vich ready for his shot to start

The Day - - SUMMARY - By WILL GRAVES AP Sports Writer

Pitts­burgh — 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 and for­mer St. Joseph of Trum­bull stand­out 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.

Pitts­burgh line­backer Vince Wil­liams said, “He un­der­stands the game. He un­der­stands what it takes to be a pro. He takes care of his body. He stud­ies. That’s re­ally all you can ex­pect from him right now.”

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