When Devin Bush was hurt in Week 6 against the Cleveland Browns it elevated Robert Spillane from a special teams player who had played a few snaps for Vince Williams in Week 1 to the Steelers linebacker tasked with replacing the tackling, coverage and overall athletic presence on the field that was Devin Bush Jr.
Devin Bush Jr. didn’t have flashy stats, but he was playing the inside linebacker position at an incredibly high level. He was tasked with taking on the tougher linebacker coverage assignments, he took on complex roles and covered enormous areas of the field in zone and was still expected to be a major force against the run from sideline to sideline. Vince Williams was having a fantastic season, in part, because Devin Bush being next to him freed Williams up to attack the offense to try and make splash plays.
With Bush out Vince Williams has had to step up and take on more responsibility and tougher assignments, but there is still a lot falling on Robert Spillane’s shoulders, and the results haven’t been bad.
1st quarter, 14:06. Robert Spillane is the linebacker in the middle of the screen
This is a fabulous play, Spillane is active, reading the quarterback’s progression and when he sees the throw coming, he breaks on the ball and takes it to the house. I’ve compared Spillane’s strengths to Minkah Fitzpatrick in the very specific area of seeing a play develop in front of him and attacking it incredibly fast. We saw that in Week 6 defending screen passes, in Week 7 when he turned into a human missile to stop Derrick Henry on the goal line, and it shows up here.
1st quarter, 11:00. Robert Spillane is the linebacker in the middle of the screen.
Robert Spillane is smart and reasonably athletic, but he’s not Devin Bush, he doesn’t turn on a dime, and here he gets beat by a double move from a very good change of direction based receiver in Willie Snead. He’s not a linebacker you can just put on a slot receiver and call it a day. While Spillane gets beat here, the big gain is caused by both Terrell Edmunds and Minkah Fitzpatrick biting on the route coming across the middle behind Snead.
1st quarter, 6:47. Robert Spillane is the linebacker in the middle of the screen.
Here’s another example of why Robert Spillane is not Devin Bush. The Ravens trust J.K. Dobbins to out run Spillane to the sideline, and he does. If you replace Spillane with a healthy Devin Bush, Dobbins is most likely getting tackled at the 35 yard line for a minimal gain. Although, to be honest, if Bush is playing here, the tight end #89 is likely coming back to find Bush while the pulling lineman #77 tries to block Terrell Edmunds. Teams make sure they get a body on Devin Bush.
2nd quarter, 12:42. Robert Spillane is the middle linebacker.
It’s not the easiest to see, but Spillane commits too far outside on this play, allowing the cutback while a blocker washes Spillane out of the play. His lack of lateral speed makes him more likely to overcommit to stop outside runs, and that opens up cutback lanes.
3rd quarter, 11:59. Robert Spillane lines up over the slot receiver to the bottom of the screen.
J.K. Dobbins is quick, but he’s no Willie Snead as a route runner, and Robert Spillane is able to get a hands on the ball and rip it out for an incomplete pass.
4th quarter, 14:06. Robert Spillane (#41) is the linebacker in the lower right corner of the screen.
Robert Spillane doesn’t have sideline to sideline speed, but he has plenty of burst when he is attacking forward, and he shows that here, reading the run and beating the running back to the hole to force a 2-yard loss.
4th quarter, 2:00. Isaiah Buggs is lined up at nose tackle, Robert Spillane is the linebacker on the hashmarks to screen right.
Robert Spillane is in zone here, and he plays the route correctly before closing on the quarterback draw where he recovers the fumble to end the Ravens’ drive.
Robert Spillane suffers the same limitations that Vince Williams does, he’s a great player with limited range. When opponents can attack that limited range they can make Williams or Spillane a liability. With Bush out, the Ravens attacked Spillane’s range, and they broke some big plays when they were successful. When they attacked Spillane inside of that range it didn’t go well for them.
The Steelers traded for linebacker Avery Williamson from the Jets on Monday, and I hope this film room shows why the Steelers might feel that they needed to bring in another linebacker. On Thursday we’ll take a look at Avery Williamson’s film from the Jets this season and evaluate whether he brings a skill set that will fill the gaps in the Steelers linebacker room, or if he is just a veteran linebacker to give them more depth than converted safety Marcus Allen.