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What Cole Holcomb brings to the Pittsburgh Steelers defense

There is a big caveat that have to be stated as I make this film room. If you’ve seen fantastic highlights of Cole Holcomb, it’s likely from his phenomenal 2021 season. I’m not going to be evaluating his 2021 film. In 2022 he had a nagging foot issue that didn’t heal and ended up requiring surgery. I’m not going to assume he returns to his 2021 level of play, although I’d love it if he did. This film room is looking at Holcomb’s 2022 film, which I think is a more reasonable expectation for his play in 2023.

With that out of the way, lets dig in.

Cole Holcomb (#55) is the middle linebacker.

Cole Holcomb averaged right around 10 tackles a game in 2022, and you can see why here. He’s a smart run defender who consistently finds where the ball is going and gets there. He also has some top notch lineman in front of him and you can see here he doesn’t have to deal with any blockers.

Not that he can’t deal with blockers when he has to.

Cole Holcomb (#55) is the linebacker to the left side of the screen.

Holcomb does a good job putting some pop into first contact to stall the lineman, then gets off the block to get in on the tackle.

Cole Holcomb (#55) is the linebacker in the middle of the hashmarks, to the right side of the screen.

Holcomb doesn’t just give up when he meets a blocker, and he doesn’t dance with them, he fights with them and gets off the block.

Cole Holcomb (#55) is the middle linebacker.

Holcomb also doesn’t wait for the ball to come to him, frequently shooting into gaps and disrupting the run lane. Again you see him get blocked, then work off that block and back to the ball.

Cole Holcomb (#55) is the middle linebacker.

That aggressive nature can get him in trouble as well. Here he sees the lineman going to the right, and he follows, only to see that this is a split zone play and he set himself up to be blocked.

Cole Holcomb (#55) is the linebacker on the hashmarks to the left side of the screen.

This time his aggressive engagement of the offensive line has him looking to find the ball, and you can see that he’s not quick enough to catch the runner when he turns the run outside. In 2022 Holcomb didn’t have the same quickness or speed he had in 2021, and that limited his playmaking.

Cole Holcomb (#55) is the middle linebacker.

This is a much better job, and he gets to the back easily to shut down this outside run. Notice again that his defensive line is eating all of the blocks. He doesn’t have to fight through blocks to make this play, just navigate a bit of traffic.

Cole Holcomb (#55) is the middle linebacker, up on the line of scrimmage (he’ll drop after making contact with the running back)

Here again we see he’s not as fast as he was in 2021, and Ezekiel Elliott gets 31 yards out of it. I don’t know why Holcomb turns his back to the play here, but he drops after Elliott comes up to block him. This seems like a really bad game plan on defense to have the linebacker drop like this after his man blocks him, and turning his back just gives up the pass to the back. I don’t know how much blame to put on Holcomb for that part, but it is something that he will need to unlearn.

Cole Holcomb (#55) is the middle linebacker.

This is much better. One of Robert Spillane’s biggest strengths was what the Steelers called “hug” blitzing. The linebacker comes right up to the line of scrimmage at the snap, looking for the running back. If the back comes out they cover him, if he comes to block them, they engage, if the back tries to help block a different defender, the linebacker adds to the rush. In both of these clips you see Holcomb crash the line of scrimmage, with the Steelers you won’t see him engage the back and then turn away from the play to drop.

Cole Holcomb (#55) is the middle linebacker.

This is Cole Holcomb’s only pass defense of 2022. He makes a nice play on the ball here. In 2021 Holcomb had 7 passes defended and 2 interceptions, so he can make plays on the ball, but he isn’t an elite pass defender at all.

Cole Holcomb (#55) is the linebacker between the hashmarks.

On this play Holcomb is responsible for picking up anything coming from the right side into the middle of the field, and he does a good job. The Steelers will ask him to do a lot of this kind of defense, and he has experience doing it.

Cole Holcomb (#55) is the linebacker between the hashmarks.

The same defensive look, but this time the Cowboys are ready for it, and set Holcomb up to be covering Michael Gallup, who immediately cuts outside across the back of the endzone. Holcomb can’t keep up with him and it is a touchdown.

This is clearly a play where the Cowboys beat the scheme more than the player, but it shows that in 2022 Holcomb wasn’t the guy who could cover wide receivers like this. It’s very hard to protect your inside linebackers over an entire game, and unless a team runs straight man coverage all game those linebackers are going to have to cover wide receivers at times. That’s why elite athleticism is so highly prized, and why Tremaine Edmunds got a ton of money, because he can run with a wide receiver.

Cole Holcomb wasn’t the same linebacker in 2022 that he was in 2021, but he was still a very good linebacker. Watching his 2022 film, I’d say he would have been the best linebacker on the Steelers in 2022, and if he can pass a physical and play at the same level, he will likely be the best linebacker on the Steelers in 2023. If he can go farther and start playing more like the 2021 version of himself? That would be incredible.

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