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Steelers Vertex: Robert Spillane epitomized “next man up” on Sunday

Between play on the field and taking over the communications on the defense, Spillane allowed the Steelers to stick to their game plan even after the loss of Devin Bush.

Pittsburgh Steelers v New York Giants Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Although it was nerdy, some here at BTSC enjoyed the Steelers Vertex from last week. So we decided to do it again following the the Steelers 38-7 thumping of the Browns on Sunday. Here’s a reminder of the what we’re trying to accomplish here...

Vertex- a single point where two or more lines cross.

Sometimes to make a great point, it takes two different systems of analysis to come together and build off each other in order to drawl a proper conclusion. In this case, the two methods are statistical analysis and film breakdown. Enter Dave Schofield (the stat geek) and Geoffrey Benedict (the film guru) to come together to prove a single point based on our two lines of thinking.

The topic at hand this week is the play of inside linebacker Robert Spillane who entered the Steelers’ Week 6 game after the injury to Devin Bush. On the season, Bush had played every defensive snap prior to his injury. Spillane had big shoes to fill on Sunday in taking over the middle of the Steelers defense both from an ability and communication standpoint.

So what happened? Did Spillane step up to the challenge? How concerned should Steelers’ fans be if Spillane if the teams only option moving forward?

Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.

The Stats Line:

When it comes to the numbers, Steelers fans first have to understand where Robert Spillane was coming from. Playing only one defensive snap in 2019, Spillane saw 8 snaps late in the Steelers Week 1 matchup against the New York Giants where he had one tackle. Otherwise, Spillane has been a special teams ace on the season playing approximately 70% of those snaps for the Steelers. So when Spillane was forced into action with just under two minutes remaining in the first half on Sunday, Steelers fans really did not know what to expect.

One thing which benefited Spillane’s situation was the Steelers held a 24-0 lead when he entered the game for the injured Devin Bush. While the Browns did score their only touchdown of the game on the drive in which Spillane took over, there was nothing specific which would attribute those points to him.

For the game, Spillane finished with 6 tackles, one of which was for loss, on 30 snaps according to Pro Football Reference. The easy math shows Spillane was in on the tackle in 20% of the plays he was on the field on defense. The only player for the Steelers who was in on a higher percent of tackles while playing at least half of the defensive snaps in 2020 was Mike Hilton in Week 3 against the Houston Texans when he had 8 tackles on 37 snaps meaning he was in on the tackle on 21.6% of the time.

With not many statistical numbers to go by, the next best method of numerical analysis would be to see how Spillane graded out according to Pro Football Focus. While their grading system is anything but perfect, it does at least give numerical data to put with play on the field.

One discrepancy between PFF and Pro Football Reference is the number of snaps Spillane has played in 2020. While the very accurate Pro Football Reference has him at 38 defensive snaps, PFF has Spillane graded with 39 plays on defense.

So how did Spillane score according to PFF? Based on the entire season, he actually has a higher overall score (71.6) than Devin Bush (59.7). Should Spillane have enough snaps to qualify for the overall position rank, he would be somewhere around 15th in the NFL at linebacker. Additionally, Spillane‘s highest score individually among the categories of rush defense, pass rush, and pass coverage, comes in the coverage category with a score of 75.2 on the season. Just to clarify, Spillane’s score in coverage does not come from a lack of data as 22 of his 39 snaps were graded as being “in coverage.”

What do these numbers mean? Basically it says Spillane did a great job filling in on Sunday. Does this mean Spillane is a better answer than Devin Bush? Not so fast.

The Film Line:

Robert Spillane has looked good in the time he has been on the field, and in the role he has been used. But Robert Spillane isn’t Devin Bush. Let’s jump into the film, starting off with run defense.

Week 6, 4th quarter, 8:03. Robert Spillane is the middle linebacker.

Devin Bush has elite lateral mobility, Robert Spillane does not. He reads the run, but isn’t able to get ahead of, or shed the block of the right guard. Devin Bush wouldn’t get caught and sealed out of this play, but that is one of the things that make Bush special.

Week 6, 4th quarter, 7:32. Robert Spillane is the linebacker standing on the Steelers logo.

This is where Robert Spillane is at his best in run defense, read the play, attack the run lane. The Browns still gained 8 yards though, because the Steelers didn’t get the runner down after Spillane took on the pulling guard.

That’s Robert Spillane against the run, he’s solid, but limited in his quickness, and more suited to filling lanes than shedding blocks and making the tackle.

Week 6, 2nd quarter, 0:21. Robert Spillane is the linebacker in the middle of the field.

In zone coverage Spillane shows pretty good speed in his backpedal, good play reading and quick reactions. On this play Spillane is closing on the tight end by the time the ball leaves Baker Mayfield’s hand, and the tight end is tackled 2 yards short of the first down.

Spillane’s read and react skills show up even better when he is in man against a tight end or running back that is kept in to block.

Week 6, 3rd quarter, 6:16. Robert Spillane is the linebacker to the top of the screen, approaching the line of scrimmage at the snap.

The Steelers man defense has defenders rush when their man is blocking, and that is important if your rush is based on number advantages. Spillane, on this play, gets wide with Kareem Hunt, but when Hunt turns to block, Spillane shows again his quick reaction time as he closes on Baker Mayfield and forces an off-balance throw that falls incomplete.

One of the trickier parts of rushing when your man is blocking is teams often have a player block, then slip away from the block and become a receiver. When a defender rushes because they see their player blocking, they still need to be able to switch back into coverage if that player slips out to become a receiver.

Week 6, 3rd quarter, 0:48. Robert Spillane is the middle linebacker.

This is Robert Spillane at his best. He reads the play-action quickly, gets past the offensive lineman and tackles the tight end as soon as he catches the ball.

Robert Spillane might be the best linebacker on the team in this role, and with the Steelers dynamic pass rush and heavy use of blitzes, it is an important role.

The problem facing the Steelers is how to use Robert Spillane and Vince Williams together because in several key areas, especially in the run game, they seem to overlap rather than compliment each other. Mike Tomlin did state that the job of replacing Bush would be a group effort and involve multiple players taking on different roles. Robert Spillane is unlikely to be playing a very high percentage of snaps. But for 30 snaps in Week 6, Robert Spillane did a really good job stepping in and playing for Devin Bush.

The Point:

Based on the data available, Robert Spillane did a noble job filling in for Devin Bush against the Cleveland Browns. In a game which was never really close when Spillane was making the calls on defense, he stepped in and stepped up to the challenge.

As for the remainder of the 2020 season, using Spillane exclusively in place of Devin Bush could get a little tricky. Spillane did very well in pass coverage, but will this continue once teams are preparing for him rather than Bush? While many times quarterbacks will seek out a replacement player when someone goes down via injury in order to test them during the game, it would have taken more of an offensive scheme adjustment to get Spillane in the coverage situation the Browns may have wanted to exploit. For example, think of Jon Bostic guarding Keenan Allen in 2018 unless you have completely blocked it from your mind. So while the numbers look promising for Spillane so far in 2020, the biggest test he will find is when teams specifically game plan for him being in the lineup.

The Steelers plan at linebacker will likely be an evolving process over the next few weeks which could even take the majority of the 2020 season. If nothing else, Robert Spillane’s play on Sunday against the Cleveland Browns shows why he should be considered to be a big part of the equation and why he has been the Steelers’ “next man up” at the position thus far in 2020.