The Steelers started looking for super athletic linebackers in the draft back in 2014 when they drafted Ryan Shazier, a pick that started a run of the Steelers drafting super athletic defenders in 4 of the next 5 drafts. In fact, the Steelers drafted defensive players 7 years in a row in the first round, and the two with the worst results were the least athletic picks, Jarvis Jones and Artie Burns. Even with Shazier’s career cut off due to injury, the Steelers have built a defense that is incredibly athletic behind their defensive line, with Bud Dupree, T.J. Watt, Terrell Edmunds and Devin Bush all ranking in the top 5% of NFL athletes at their position.
The Steelers focus on finding super athletic players has paid off, nowhere more than at linebacker.
The three-headed monster
T.J. Watt, hard as it is to believe now, wasn’t a consensus good pick when the Steelers drafted him at the end of the first round in 2017. Twenty-nine players were drafted ahead of him, and yet a lot of people thought he went too early. I don’t think anyone would say that today. T.J. Watt leads his entire draft class in sacks, tackles for a loss, QB hits and especially forced fumbles, where Watt has an incredible 15-6 lead on second place. Only two players in the 2017 draft class have more solo tackles than Watt while also having double digit sacks, Jamal Adams and Jarrad Davis, and T.J. Watt adds 3 interceptions and 18 passes defended, numbers that are better than every non-defensive back in his draft class.
To sum up, T.J. Watt was the steal of the 2017 draft, and he is a dynamic, game changing edge defender who is still ascending. It’s hard to overstate the impact T.J. Watt had on each game of the 2019 season, and crazy as it sounds, it feels like he’s going to be even better in 2020. Watt is a defensive player of the year candidate heading into his third NFL season, and perhaps more impressive, he was voted a team captain, one of the youngest team captains (not special teams) the Steelers have ever had. Ben Roethlisberger first became a team captain in his fifth year, Cam Heyward in his 4th. Being voted a team captain in his third season isn’t just a recognition of his individual talent, it’s a recognition of the leadership he brings to the defense on and off the field.
In order to seem unbiased here I will also bring up the flaws in his game. T.J. Watt is only pretty-good when he drops into coverage roles outside of the flats.
Bud Dupree lit up the 2015 NFL combine, posting a 98th percentile SPARQ score at 269 pounds. He lost weight to gain more agility to play outside linebacker, so it’s possible he would score even higher today. That athleticism kept him on the field when individual stats didn’t come early on in his career.
Bud Dupree first stood out to me in 2016, when his return to the Steelers after 9 games resulted in an explosion of sacks. The Steelers recorded 13 sacks over the first 9 games, and 25 in the last 7 games, after Bud Dupree returned. The first 9 games the Steelers were tied for worst in the league at generating sacks, the last 7 they were the best. Looking a bit deeper, the Steelers ranked 3rd in 2015, after ranking 26th in 2014. There were two big changes on the defense, Keith Butler took over for Dick LeBeau, and the Steelers drafted Bud Dupree. If you take Bud Dupree’s entire career, the Steelers are 1st in the NFL in sacks when he plays, and nowhere near that when he doesn’t. Of course, since T.J. Watt was drafted in 2017 they have played together all but 2 games, so it is easy to minimize Bud Dupree’s role in the Steelers’ sack numbers, and many analysts do when they discuss the Steelers pass rush, by starting in 2017, when the Steelers return to being a top pass rushing team started in 2015.
One other stat that correlates with Bud Dupree playing is rushing yards by quarterbacks. The Steelers struggles with running quarterbacks is a narrative that was true before Bud Dupree joined the Steelers, and it plagued them when he was out in 2016. The only game Bud Dupree has played in where the Steelers gave up a quarterback’s average rushing yards per game or more came at the end of the 2017 season. You may remember Bud Dupree calling out team mates for abandoning their assignments to chase the sack record after a Steeler win. That’s the game.
Bud Dupree doesn’t post impressive pressure rates, his pressure generation is average for a starting edge, almost replacement level, and his per-snap pressure and sack rates used to rival Anthony Chickillo’s. In 2019 his pressure generation didn’t jump up like T.J. Watt’s did, but Dupree’s sack rate went up substantially, a huge spike in converting pressures to sacks.
This will hurt him in free agency, as teams really do look at pressure rate when valuing edge rushers, but the film tells another story.
The Steelers rush T.J. Watt aggressively a lot. His run defense on film looks good, but the numbers on runs to his side of the field look bad because of this, defending the run is secondary to his job of destroying quarterbacks. The Steelers are right to use him that way, there’s very few players better in that role, and Watt is quick enough mentally and physically to still make a lot of plays in run defense. Bud Durpee is the opposite. Dupree is almost always reading for a run first, containing the quarterback in the pocket second, and going for sacks third. What stands out in his pass rush in 2019 is the number of times he is reading run, maintaining positional integrity, and then, when he sees the opportunity arise, he sheds his blocker and gets to the quarterback. That’s the big change from the rest of his career. He was effective in the first two parts of his role, he just wasn’t getting off those blocks.
That’s all changed now. Bud Dupree should continue his 2019 run as a dominant run defender, a key piece in generating team sacks, and a dangerous pass rusher when the situation calls for it.
Devin Bush started the 2019 season as an incredibly athletic inside linebacker with a lot of flaws in his game. That is to be expected as a rookie, normally they start ironing out those flaws in their second season. Devin Bush didn’t wait, he was fixing flaws in his game weekly. By the end of the season he was one of the better inside linebackers in the NFL, and he should be even better in 2020. Bush’s vision and quick twitch athleticism puts him in position to stuff runs a lot, his lateral speed makes him a monster against outside runs and screens, he largely solved his struggles against tall pass catching tight ends in the first half of the season, and he showed a knack for finding the football and generating turnovers.
Devin Bush also plays a part in the success of the edge rushers on the Steelers. He makes run defense easier for them, and he helps eliminate the need to drop T.J. Watt or Bud Dupree into coverage like we saw in 2018 when they were used to cover for Vince Williams and Jon Bostic’s limitations in coverage. Devin Bush led the Steelers in tackles as a rookie, and recorded the most tackles of any Steeler rookie since tackles started begin recorded in 1987, tackles for a loss started being recorded in 1999, and Devin Bush ranks third among Steeler rookies with 9, behind Kendrell Bell’s incredible 23 in 2001 and T.J. Watt’s 10 in 2017. In turnovers, Bush’s 2 interceptions and 4 fumbles recovered puts him third among Steeler rookies behind Carnell Lake and Darren Perry with 7 turnovers for each.
Devin Bush’s rookie year was one of the better rookie seasons for a Steeler defender in the last 30 years. Heading into his second season, the sky is the limit for Devin Bush, and the Steelers defensive front.
The other starter
Vince Williams is the veteran in the room, and he’s a good one. He knows the defense inside and out, and is one of the better run stopping linebackers in the league. He isn’t fast, and at 30 years old, that isn’t going to improve, but he is smart and rarely gets beat the same way twice. Williams is also a good pass rusher for an inside linebacker, he has 244 pass rushes the last 4 years with 17 sacks and 62 pressures, right around a 25% pressure rate. In 2020 Vince Williams will step back into a top 2 inside linebacker role after ranking third in snaps at the position in 2019. The Steelers will rely on Williams’ experience and communication skills to be more important than his limited athleticism.
Behind the top 4 linebackers the Steelers have very little experience, the 5 backups have a combined 90 snaps on defense. Even if they appear to have talent, they haven’t shown it in actual games.
This largely untested group of backups are replacing players with far more experience, both in years and snaps.
Mark Barron: 9 yr veteran, 6697 snaps.
Anthony Chickillo: 5 yr veteran, 1045 snaps
Jayrone Elliott: 6 yr veteran, 384 snaps
Tyler Matakevich: 4 yr veteran, 149 snaps
In a year the Steelers are relying on experienced players as depth for other positions, the linebackers are a big exception.
Olasunkanmi Adeniyi accounts for 71 of those 90 defensive snaps, He has 8 tackles on those snaps. Adeniyi was highly active on special teams in 2019, playing 222 snaps and showed solid play on defense in 2020. Entering his third year after signing as an undrafted free agent Adeniyi should continue to provide the Steelers with a decent pass rushing reserve and special teams player, even if he ends up falling to fourth on the outside linebacker depth chart by the end of the season.
Marcus Allen was the Steelers first of two fifth round picks in 2018, and the second most experienced back up linebacker with 18 defensive snaps in 3 games for the Steelers. Those snaps were all in Allen’s rookie season when he was a safety. Following the example of Mark Barron, Marcus Allen started spending time with the inside linebackers in training camp, and while he is still listed on the Steelers roster as a safety, on their depth chart he shares the role of backup inside linebacker with Ulysees Gilbert III. The Steelers have been looking for hybrid safeties for years, safeties that can line up as a corner in the slot, and safeties that play like linebackers. With Marcus Allen they might have found one. Allen was a slightly above average athlete for a safety, and was going to be limited to mostly being a box safety. Allen is a player that can hit and isn’t afraid to mix it up with blockers, so he should be a good fit for the position. But making that transition isn’t easy, and with no preseason games Marcus Allen will be learning in live action. Allen has been touted by the coaching staff as having a really good knowledge of the defense, and with that being a big focus for linebackers this season, that’s a good sign.
Robert Spillane is the only other backup linebacker that has played a snap on defense in the NFL, In his case exactly 1 snap. Like Olasunkanmi Adeniyi, Robert Spillane went undrafted in 2018, signing with the Tennessee Titans, and he played 20 special teams snaps in 2 games as a rookie. The Steelers brought him in for the 2019 season, he made the practice squad and was called up for the second half of the season. While he only played 1 defensive snap, he played 77.8% of special teams snaps over the second half of the season, recording 11 tackles to lead the team in special teams tackles the second half of the season. Robert Spillane is Tyler Matakevich’s replacement and should fill his role on special teams easily, the question for Spillane is if he can earn the team’s trust to see snaps on the field.
Ulysees Gilbert III was the Steelers third and final 6th round pick for the Steelers in 2019. A standout in preseason, Gilbert made plays in all areas of the game, especially in coverage. He followed that promising start by becoming a special teams stalwart, playing 150 special teams snaps, a record 80.6% of available snaps over the first 7 games before his season ended with injury. Like Robert Spillane, Ulysees Gilbert III’s primary role is likely to be on special teams, but with Vince Williams not bringing much athleticism to man coverage, there will be snaps available for a linebacker the Steelers can trust to cover athletic running backs and tight ends. The big hurdle for Gilbert is learning the defense enough to be sound in his own responsibilities and also a communicator to the rest of the team. While Gilbert might seem the logical successor to Mark Barron’s role in the Steelers defense with the coverage ability he has flashed in preseason and training camp, and his 86th percentile athleticism, Barron was a source of miscommunication, and Gilbert likely won’t see the field unless the coaches are convinced he can avoid those same mistakes.
Alex Highsmith is the only rookie in the linebacker room, and yet he could easily end up with the most snaps of any of the backups. The Steelers 3rd round pick in 2020 was impressive at camp, and it sounds like he will see snaps early in his rookie season. Highsmith brings an NFL frame and a lot of versatility to the position, having dropped in coverage, and shown a variety of pass rush moves in college while also being a dominant run stopper. His film reminds me a bit of T.J. Watt, with the variety of pass rush moves he shows an understanding of, and like Watt, none of them were really refined. Highsmith isn’t nearly the athlete T.J. Watt or Bud Dupree are though, testing in the 52nd percentile at the combine. He brings a relentless motor, and from what we’ve heard from his college coaches and from Steelers camp, a fast learning curve. I will not be surprised if Alex Highsmith finishes with the most snaps on defense of any of the backup linebackers, and I think we’ll see him ‘get a few sacks as well.
The kids are alright
Vince Williams is 30, and Bud Dupree is 27, after them T.J. Watt is 25 and everyone else is 24 or younger. Devin Bush is the youngest at 22, and Olasunkanmi Adeniyi will turn 23 this month. The Steelers depth is really young at linebacker, and there isn’t much experience between them. The inside linebacker position is especially inexperienced, with a total of 1 snap at linebacker between Robert Spillane, Ulysees Gilbert III and Marcus Allen.
While the Steelers are relying on those young players to step up and fill the shoes of experienced veterans, there are good signs from their excellence on special teams and from hearing coaches praise their growth this off season. As long as Devin Bush, T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree stay healthy I don’t have any real concerns. I expect the Steelers to rotate the young players in early in the season to get them experience and also to see if they need to add some experience to the room. Over the course of the season, they will have to contribute, the Steelers average between 300-400 snaps for their backups at both outside and inside linebacker, a significant increase from the number of snaps any of them have seen.