When the Steelers traded up to the 10th spot in the 2019 NFL draft to select Devin Bush, I was ecstatic. I was born in Michigan, to a Michigan family, and I’ve followed Wolverines football longer than I have followed any NFL football. I loved being able to continue cheering for Devin Bush, but more than that, I was excited that the Steelers solved their inside linebacker hole with the best fit for their system that I had seen in years.
Devin Bush faced immediate comparisons to Steelers inside linebackers James Farrior and Ryan Shazier, but he didn’t remind me of either of those players. He reminded me of another inside linebacker that Steelers fans know very, very well. Devin Bush reminded me then, and now, of a young Ray Lewis.
I need to put in the caveat that I’m not saying Devin Bush will be Ray Lewis, just that his style of play is very similar. The era is different, his role won’t be the same, but they bring similar skills on the field.
But the best attribute Devin Bush put on film in 2019 was how fast he eliminated flaws and mistakes from his game. Let’s start with his strength at the start of the 2019 season.
Defending inside runs
Devin Bush has great vision, he finds the right hole and fills it. He also handles taking on blockers well.
Week 3, 1st quarter, 15:00. Devin Bush(#55) is the inside linebacker to the left side of the screen.
Devin Bush sets up in the run lane, takes on Kyle Juszczyk, and makes the tackle. It’s a five yard gain, but Bush making this play keeps the defensive backs from having to stop a running back, and the fewer times a defense asks safeties and corners to bring down a running back the better.
Week 12, 1st quarter 13:11. Devin Bush is lined up on the line of scrimmage, between Cameron Heyward and Bud Dupree to the right side of the screen.
Bush is blitzing here, he gets to the pulling 6th lineman and gets thrown to the ground. He ends up hanging onto Joe Mixon’s leg. On the surface he lost the block, but he ended up exactly where he needed to be, and drew a holding penalty getting there.
Week 15, 2nd quarter, 5:47. Devin Bush is the inside linebacker to the right of the screen.
Bush reads the run play, and beats the running back to his mark. Javon Hargrave did a good job controlling the center to give Bush the opportunity, and Bush’s vision and quickness seal the play for a 2-yard loss.
From the moment Devin Bush stepped on the field for the Steelers he improved their defense against runs up the middle. In 2018 the Steelers started 2 bigger inside linebackers in Vince Williams and Jon Bostic, and ranked 16th in Football Outsiders DVOA on runs up the middle, in 2019 that improved to 10th with Devin Bush.
Defending outside runs
Week 3, 4th quarter, 10:22. Devin Bush is the inside linebacker to the left side of the screen.
Devin Bush has incredible lateral speed, but on this play you see him make a basic mistake by attacking the runner at an angle and trying to catch the runner instead of getting in front of the runner. It’s easier to show it than to explain it.
Week 15, 1st quarter, 7:03. Devin Bush is the inside linebacker on the right hash mark.
Here Bush gets directly into the path of the runner, forcing a cutback, and is able to make the tackle. Devin Bush is a great lateral mover and shows it by not taking an angle to the runner on this play. Moving sideways, Bush forces the runner to make a choice and then reacts.
Week 15, 3rd quarter 0:44. Bush is the linebacker to the right of the screen, in front of the “r”.
This is a phenomenal play by the young linebacker. He reads the inside run and sits behind Cameron Heyward, ready to make a tackle in either direction. This is a good example of how the Steelers defend the run without having the defensive lineman cover 2-gaps. Cameron Heyward drives the TE the Bills assign to block him back and inside, while Devin Bush reads the gaps on each side of him.
Frank Gore sees Bush sitting on the inside lane and follows the pulling guard outside. Bush stays lateral, mirroring Gore, while keeping free of the linemen. Again he gets right into Gore’s path, Gore cuts inside and Bush finishes the play easily.
Devin Bush makes this look easy, but this is dominant run defense from an inside linebacker. Devin Bush can take on blockers in the run game and hold his own most of the time, but he really shines when he gets to play more of a traditional middle linebacker role where he reads the play and beats the running back to his spot.
The Steelers ranked 16th in the NFL on off-tackle and outside runs through the first 8 games, giving up 5 yards a carry. In the second half of the season they gave up 2.9 yards per carry on those runs, the lowest in the NFL. Devin Bush was a big part of that improvement and it led to the Steelers facing the most inside runs of any team in the NFL in 2019 even though they were a top 10 defense against those runs. Devin Bush was a good run defender at the start of his rookie season. By the end of that season he was great.
While Devin Bush helped improve the Steelers run defense, the biggest problem on the 2018 defense was the cover ability of the linebackers. Vince Williams is a good linebacker, but when he is your best linebacker in coverage your team is in trouble. Mark Barron was brought in to be the top cover linebacker on the Steelers defense, but Devin Bush was a big part of it as well.
Week 1, 3rd quarter, 4:39. Devin Bush is lined up on the hash mark to the top of the screen
First game in the NFL and the Patriots get Devin Bush isolated in man on Julian Edelman. This isn’t great coverage, but Bush stays with Edelman and if Brady had targeted Edelman, Bush is in position to keep him from getting any yards after the catch.
Week 1, 2nd quarter, 8:45. Devin Bush is the inside linebacker to the bottom of the screen.
The Patriots use play action here, and Bush falls for it. He doesn’t just come up to the line, he stays there way too long leaving Julian Edelman wide open just a few yards behind him. Other teams saw this and used play action to attack the Steelers linebackers, especially in Week 3.
Week 3, 1st quarter 14:29. Devin Bush is the inside linebacker to the bottom of the screen.
George Kittle runs right past Devin Bush while Bush stares at the three potential runners that cross the quarterback’s path. Meanwhile Kittle is traipsing through an open field of daisies waiting for the ball to find him.
Week 3, 2nd quarter, 12:29. Devin Bush is the inside linebacker to the right side of the screen.
Play action again, but Devin Bush is already adjusting and ends up inches away from making a play on this ball. If he is one-step farther back he likely gets a hand on the ball here.
Week 9, 4th quarter, 5:40. Devin Bush is the inside linebacker to the top of the screen.
Almost two months later this is Devin Bush biting on play action. This is a different player than the one that was an easy target early in the season. He doesn’t factor into the play here, but the change in how fast he reads play action and how quickly he gets back is impressive.
Week 2, 2nd quarter, 8:45. Devin Bush is the inside linebacker to the top of the screen, he stays on the 10 yard line until after the snap.
After a 2018 season where these tight end seam passes were easy yards against the Steelers, Devin Bush and his 5’11” height became the target of offensive coordinators. They were going to keep throwing jump balls over his head to their tall tight ends until he made them stop.
Week 5, 3rd quarter, 8:28.
They stopped after this play in Week 5.
Week 4, 3rd quarter, 10:33. Devin Bush is the inside linebacker on the hash marks to the top of the screen.
This is a pattern match zone where Devin Bush is responsible for the first player that runs a route to the middle. This lets Bush stay closer to the middle of the field and not have to worry about deep coverage on most plays. The Bengals try to get Bush defending a deep route, but they get him defending the quick in route instead.
Playing through the whistle
To end this film room we’ll contrast 2 plays from back to back games.
Week 5, 4th quarter, 7:05. Bush is the linebacker in the middle of the field, between the hashes.
This play could have been a safety. Steelers defenders were celebrating while the Ravens pulled Gus Edwards out of the endzone. Devin Bush was among the players celebrating, while veteran Joe Haden is running up to the pile because the whistle hadn’t blown.
Here’s a slow motion clip from the point Bush started celebrating until the ball left the end zone.
Devin Bush had a shot at this play. If he gets into the pile, he would have been in the perfect spot to stop the Ravens from pulling Edwards across the line.
It’s the kind of mistake you expect a rookie to make. You know that it hurt to watch that in the film room. The truly great players don’t make those kind of mistakes twice.
Week 6, 1st quarter, 11:01. Devin Bush is the inside linebacker to the bottom of the screen.
This time, while veterans Tyson Alualu, T.J. Watt and Vince Williams mull about the ball, Devin Bush is playing full speed through the whistle. He isn’t going to let a chance to make a big play slip away again, Bush scores a touchdown and the Steelers end up winning the game by 7 points.
Devin Bush started the season an athletic and talented inside linebacker with a lot to learn and flaws opponents could exploit. He ended the season, in my opinion, as one of the best inside linebackers in the NFL.
Devin Bush made a huge impact on the Steelers defense. One stat that shows his impact is run tackles made by the Steelers free safety. In 2018 Sean Davis was tied with inside linebacker Jon Bostic for third on the team in solo run tackles, recording 8.5% of the tackles on run plays. In 2019 Minkah Fitzpatrick ranked 11th on the team in solo run tackles, recording 4.5% of tackles on run plays, Devin Bush had twice as many as Fitzpatrick.
Heading into his second season, when he’ll be 22 and still one of the youngest players in the league, there are no big flaws on his film that he needs to fix. Of course he can get better, and I expect he will, but the flaws that showed up on film in his rookie season were methodically eliminated from his game. His ability to learn from his mistakes and apply that learning to the very next game has made him a top player on this defense already. How far can he go from there? I wouldn’t even attempt to put a ceiling on him at this point.