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By: K.T. Smith (CHISAP)
We continue to take a deep dive into the Steelers roster, by position. Today, we look at the linebackers.
This is the second article in a series reviewing how the Steelers’ positional groups fared in 2022. Here, we look at the inside linebackers, and at how the unit remains in search of its next great player.
My love of the Steelers was born in January of 1976 when, as a six year-old, I watched Jack Lambert slam perpetual Cowboys’ punk Cliff Harris to the turf in Super Bowl X. Because of that play, and of the way I would later be trained in the game of football, linebackers mattered most to me. It was no coincidence the Steelers were known for churning out great ones.
First it was Lambert and Jack Ham. Then Robin Cole, Bryan Hinkle and David Little. Then Hardy Nickerson, Levon Kirkland, Earl Holmes, Kendrell Bell (for a hot minute), James Farrior, Larry Foote, Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier. I liked the outside linebackers, too, the guys who made life hell for opposing quarterbacks. From Mike Merriweather to Kevin Greene and Greg Lloyd, then Joey Porter, James Harrison, Lamar Woodley and now T.J. Watt, the Steelers have had some great ones. But it was the inside backers, conducting their symphony of orchestrated violence, who best defined football in Pittsburgh.
The game has changed since I first became enamored with Jack Lambert. It’s no longer played between the hashes or defined by one unit’s ability to shove the other around. Offenses are wide open now. Speed is as important as brawn. Linebackers must be as adept at playing in space as they are taking on guards. Physicality still has its place. But a linebacker who can’t run or defend the pass is easily exposed in the modern game.
Which brings us to the current state of the Steelers’ inside linebacking corps. The group of Myles Jack, Devin Bush, Robert Spillane and Mark Robinson wasn’t terrible in 2022. They lacked a complete player, though, someone who could take on blocks, move laterally, defend the pass and rush the quarterback when necessary. That sounds like a big ask of any one player. But it’s what some of the league’s best inside backers, like Baltimore’s Patrick Queen and Roquan Smith, or San Francisco’s Fred Warner, are capable of doing.
Jack, a free agent signee from Jacksonville, came as advertised. He could run and hit, and his 104 tackles was tops on the defense. Jack provided some of the sideline-to-sideline speed the Steelers lacked at the position. Plays like this one, where he came from the right hash to chase down Leonard Fournette near the opposite sideline, showcased range that no recent Steelers’ every-down linebacker has possessed:
As the off-ball Mack in Pittsburgh’s scheme, Jack was also adept at sorting through clutter and finding the football. He solidified the back side of runs by closing off cutback lanes, like we see here:
Jack has been prone to injury in recent years, however, missing 11 games over the past four seasons. 2022 was no different. A groin injury limited his production down the stretch. He missed the Week 15 game at Carolina, then played just 44 snaps over the final three games. Jack’s durability is a concern.
Bush was healthier than he’s been the past two seasons, if not better. He made 81 tackles, the most since his 2019 rookie campaign. There were glimpses of his rookie self at times. On this play, Bush, positioned at the middle of a three-linebacker set, finds a clean path to the ball and makes a sound tackle:
Too often, though, Bush was late to diagnose or react to plays and couldn’t disengage from blockers. As the Buck in Pittsburgh’s scheme, which is the strong-side backer whose job it is to plug holes and take on blocks, this was a problem. Here, aligned at right inside backer between the hashes, he gets sealed by Baltimore center Tyler Linderbaum, which opens a seam for a big run:
If there was one play that seemed to encapsulate post-knee injury Devin Bush, it was this one, from the same game. Up two with 2:14 to play, Baltimore had 3rd-and-3 from their own 28-yard line. The Steelers needed a stop to force a punt and get the ball back. Baltimore ran a power concept. Bush, seen hopping across the formation just before the snap, read the play, stepped up to take on the lead block of the fullback… and got pancaked:
He just didn’t have it anymore. The explosiveness, the power, the strength. Maybe it was the fact he never recovered from the injury. Maybe it was a question of desire, as some have suggested. Whatever the case, by season’s end, Bush had essentially been replaced in the lineup by Spillane and Robinson. After averaging 46 snaps per game over the first 13 weeks, Bush averaged just 14 over the final four contests. With his contract now expired, his time in Pittsburgh is over.
Spillane remained true to form. A demon against the run, he could fill and hit with the best of them. He made 79 tackles and was valuable to the defense down the stretch, when his usage increased as Jack got dinged up and Bush was phased out of the lineup. After playing about 48% of the defensive snaps through the first 13 games, Spillane played 100% of them over the final four — all of which were wins.
Here’s a good example of Spillane’s capability against the run. At right inside backer, Spillane (41) quickly diagnoses the pulling linemen moving to his right, fills aggressively, uses his hands to evade clutter then dips to avoid a block before making the tackle. This is part instinct, part technique and part desire:
Spillane has a reputation as a poor pass defender. He improved in that area in 2022, finishing the season with four passes defensed, which was more than Jack or Bush. When he was isolated in space, however, he struggled. He doesn’t have the lateral quickness to stay with backs who change direction quickly, like we see on this checkdown throw by Carolina to the middle of the field:
Still, Spillane improved overall. Coupled with his special teams’ prowess, he was a valuable contributor for the Steelers.
Finally, there was Robinson. A 7th Round rookie out of Ole Miss, Robinson was considered a project after converting to linebacker from running back for his final season in college. Robinson proved to be a quick study, however. In what many thought would be a red-shirt season, he worked his way into the lineup late in the year, where his speed to the football was an asset. Watch how quickly Robinson, aligned between the hashes over top of the right tackle, reacts to this full flow run play against Carolina:
On this next play, Robinson’s speed allows him to stop a run to Carolina’s right. He comes from his position over top of the right guard, beats the fullback to the point of attack and plugs the hole. This is a run that would have popped against most linebackers:
The film was certainly encouraging. But Robinson logged just 44 defensive snaps all season. That’s an incredibly small sample size, and one that makes betting on Robinson to be a difference-maker in 2023 a risky proposition.
All of which leaves the team where, exactly?
Jack is on the books for just over $11 million next season. He would carry a dead cap hit of $3.25 million if the Steelers released him. Given the fact Bush won’t return, it’s unlikely the Steelers will part with Jack, too.
Spillane signed a one-year, $2.5 million restricted free agent tender last off-season. He is now an unrestricted free agent, one of several on the defense. Spillane has found a role in Pittsburgh. But might he find a bigger one, and a bigger paycheck, somewhere else? The Steelers will have to decide how much, and at what price, they want to retain him.
Robinson figures to absorb some of Bush’s reps. But the degree to which the Steelers can count on him next season depends on how quickly he can hone the under-developed aspects of his game, like his pass coverage skills, or not allowing his aggressiveness to put him out of position. A bigger role for Robinson seems certain. But it’s hard to see him as the anchor of the linebacking corps just yet.
What the Steelers have, then, is a solid but potentially injury-prone starter in Jack, a developing player who needs more seasoning in Robinson, and a thumper who may not return in Spillane.
Here’s what they don’t have: the next great Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker.
It’s been five years since Shazier went down with the spinal injury that ended his career. Shazier was THAT player — the do-it-all modern linebacker who never came off the field and could anchor a unit. The Steelers have tried in vain to find his replacement. They’ve plugged in Vince Williams, Sean Spence, Jon Bostic, Mark Barron, Joe Schobert, Bush and now Jack. Williams was a fan favorite for his toughness but was no Shazier. Jack has been the best of the bunch. The others failed to pan out.
How much better would a Shazier-type make this Pittsburgh defense? Arguably, they are good. A Shazier-type would make them great. It would clean up the awkward fits they’ve encountered by trying to pair players who are each limited in some way. It would allow them to get more creative with their blitzes, coverages and sub-packages. With Watt and Cam Heyward up front, and Minkah Fitzpatrick on the back end, it would give the Steelers a playmaker at every level. Few defenses can boast such talent. The Steelers, should they land their franchise backer, would have it.
Where can they find such a player? That’s a tough one. There are some good inside backers in the upcoming free agent class. Not Shazier-good, but better than anyone on the current roster. Buffalo’s Tremaine Edmunds, brother of Steelers’ safety Terrell, is one such player. Edmunds is just 24 years old, and his size (6’5-250) and physicality make him well-suited to play the Buck. Leighton Vander Esch of the Cowboys is another intriguing name in whom the Steelers reportedly had interest in as a draft pick. Vander Esch is 26, similar in stature and style to Edmunds and would also fit well on the strong side.
The Steelers can look to the draft to fill their void, too. I won’t speculate on candidates — quite honestly, I haven’t done much research in that area yet — but with Pittsburgh’s penchant for drafting linebackers, this wouldn’t be surprising. Some may argue, with needs at cornerback and on the offensive and defensive lines, Pittsburgh can’t afford to spend a top pick on a linebacker. I would argue that if a backer with Shazier’s potential is available, how can they not?
One way or another, they can improve the defense dramatically by landing the next great Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker. It’s a proposition easier said than done. For a good defense to become great, however, it’s the catalyst to their transformation.
Originally posted on Behind the Steel Curtain – All Posts