After his deep crop of linebackers played so well in the first preseason game, Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler was asked how he would eventually thin the herd.
He deferred to the special-teams coach.
"It's going to come down to who Danny Smith likes," said Butler.
That was no joke. Mike Tomlin re-enforced the comment Tuesday at his weekly press conference.
"It’s less about what they do on defense," Tomlin said of the backup linebackers, "and more about what they do on special teams."
Stevenson Sylvester was cut earlier this week to open up a second spot for inside linebackers behind Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons. So if special-teams play is the measuring stick, Marshall McFadden and Kion Wilson are the frontrunners. They are the only two of the talented group of five backup ILBs to have made tackles on special teams.
McFadden, who was activated off the Steelers' practice squad last last season, is the leader with three special-teams tackles. And since he's been calling signals as the buck linebacker for the second team, McFadden should be considered a roster lock.
The favorite for the other spot -- with all due respect to Vince Williams, Brian Rolle and Terence Garvin -- is most likely Wilson, who's not only the buck on the third team, but was the only player on every one of the Steelers' first-team special-teams units last Saturday night.
Wilson, of course, wasn't about to claim anything as his.
"I don’t want to jump the gun on anything," he said, "but coaches have expressed they’re pleased with my special-teams play. I try to take it and roll with it and get better every day."
Big East college football fans may remember Wilson as the captain of the 2009 South Florida defense that included Jason Pierre-Paul, Nate Allen, Jerome Murphy and George Selvie. All were drafted except Wilson -- who led the team with 105 tackles -- and all are still in NFL camps.
Wilson was the Defensive MVP by a unanimous vote of teammates that year, but the 6-0 1/2, 239-pounder was hurt by a 4.89 40 at the combine. Yet, he fought his way up from the depths of two rosters -- San Diego in 2010 and Carolina in 2011 -- to play in a total of eight NFL games.
He didn't play last season, but signed with the Steelers in January.
Wilson has fought through life in the same manner. His father was murdered when he was a child, and two of his brothers were murdered prior to his senior season at South Florida. But he is talented. He's the nephew of former Pitt great Elliott Walker, who was Tony Dorsett's blocking back on the 1976 national championship team before becoming the second 1,000-yard rusher in school history in 1977.
Walker was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers but only lasted a year. Wilson's already topped that.
"I’ve had my share of ups and downs," he said, "and coming off a year in which I was away from football I know what it takes. It’s been expressed to me directly what it would take to make this team, and so that’s what I driving for."
Wilson has 8 tackles, 1 sack, 2 QB pressures and the all-important pair of special-teams tackles. But he's also learning the most difficult position on the defense, a position James Farrior claimed he still hadn't mastered late in his career.
"It’s a very difficult position coming in my first year," Wilson said. "I struggled picking it up in the beginning but now I’m getting more comfortable in the command role and calling the defense and recognizing things a little better. It’s all in time."
Wilson will get that time if he can hold off Williams, Rolle and Garvin in Carolina tonight.
Rolle is a former Ohio State captain whose best Steelers showing was the first. Williams is a sixth-round draft pick who "plays from the neck up," according to Butler. And Garvin, the tall and rangy former safety from WVU, has plenty of long-term upside and also worked at outside linebacker against Kansas City.
"It's just a big, important week for those guys," said Tomlin.
And in turn, a big, important week for the Steelers' special teams.