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The most impactful returning Steelers defender might not be T.J. Watt or Cameron Heyward

The Steelers return 6 players, including 4 Pro-Bowlers to the lineup this week. But what they really missed, was Robert Spillane.

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Robert Spillane was a special teams player most Steeler fans didn’t think much of a year ago, when depth at inside linebacker was considered a serious problem. The Steelers didn’t even think enough of Spillane to give him rotational snaps on defense, but when he stepped on the field in Week 6, replacing the Steelers fantastic young linebacker Devin Bush, he didn’t play like a backup, or a journeyman. He played like a Steeler linebacker.


Run defense

With Robert Spillane replacing Devin Bush, the Steelers had to alter how they used their inside linebackers. Spillane isn’t the athlete Devin Bush is, and that meant Vince Williams and Spillane shared more responsibility and had less clearly defined roles. Where Devin Bush had been the primary cover linebacker, freeing Vince Williams to attack the offense, taking on blockers and blitzing a lot, Robert Spillane and Vince Williams split those duties more evenly.

Week 6, 4th quarter, 7:32. Robert Spillane (#41) is the linebacker standing on the Steelers logo.

Vince Williams is to the left, Robert Spillane is the one blowing up pulling guard Joel Bitonio and getting a hand on the running back to slow him down in the hole. Spillane has shown the hard-hitting physical play the Steelers love from the moment he stepped on the field on special teams, and it immediately translated to the defense.

That doesn’t mean it was all good though.

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

Spillane gets caught by the Browns right tackle on this play, locked up and the run goes for 19 yards (note that it is Terrell Edmunds bringing down the runner after 19 yards). Spillane isn’t an elite athlete like Devin Bush, there are going to be times his speed just isn’t enough.

That would show up 2 weeks later in Spillane’s best game of the season, against Baltimore.

Week 8, 1st quarter, 6:47. Robert Spillane is the linebacker in the middle of the screen.

Spillane shows the awareness to accelerate and stay ahead of the offensive lineman on this play, but J.K. Dobbins outruns him and is able to turn the corner with Spillane only able to get a hand on his shoe. This time, take note that Mark Andrews gets to Terrell Edmunds and drives him out of the play. Dobbins would gain 28 yards on this run, tied for the fourth longest run given up by the Steelers this season.

In that Week 8 game he showed a lot of improvement in how fast he read pays and in getting off blocks.

Week 8, 4th quarter, 14:06, Robert Spillane is the linebacker to the right side, starts on the hash marks.

Lamar Jackson makes a read on this run play, he reads the linebackers to the strong side, and has to decide to hand the ball off or keep it for a bootleg outside. You can see Alex Highmith stay outside to the weak side, he’s reading Jackson’s decision. Jackson sees Spillane moving into the middle and hands the ball off. Spillane gave ground, but still makes it to the ball carrier in the run lane to stuff the run.

Week 8, 3rd quarter, 4:56. Robert Spillane (#41) is the linebacker on the hashmarks to the left side of the screen.

This time a tight end peels off and reaches Spillane, but he sheds the block and helps stop the run for a 4 yard gain. Robert Spillane shows quick reactions and great burst to the ball in run defense, and his ability to get off blocks had improved even after only two weeks on defense.

Why does this matter more than T.J. Watt? Because you haven’t seen inside linebackers making as many run stops since Spillane went out. in 7 games with Spillane starting, the Steelers averaged over 4 tackles for loss a game, with inside linebackers recording 11 in those 7 games. Since Spillane went out the Steelers average 3 a game, with inside linebackers recording 2 in three games.

When you look at big gains on run plays, only two of the 7 runs for more than 20 yards the Steelers have allowed were with Robert Spillane on the field, and only one of those involved both he and Terrell Edmunds on the field. Robert Spillane played 36.8% of the Steelers defensive snaps, Edmunds played the vast majority, and when they were both on the field the Steelers gave up 1 run of more than 20 yards, and it is the J.K. Dobbins run I showed above.

In the one game neither played at all, week 17, the Browns picked up 2 runs of more than 20 yards. Spillane is a key run defender in the Steelers defense, and his one weakness, outside runs by speedy backs, falls right into Terrell Edmunds biggest strength, sideline to sideline speed in run defense.

One of the keys to this game is preventing big runs by Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt that spark the Cleveland offense and make life easy for Baker Mayfield. Robert Spillane and Terrell Edmunds will be incredibly important parts of that equation.


Pass defense

Run defense isn’t even the best part of Robert Spillane’s game, he’s even better when the opposition is passing the ball.

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

The Browns run a receiver right at Robert Spillane going deep, and in cutting route going right behind him and a crossing route underneath that. Spillane holds his ground, passing off the deep route, blocking the route behind him, and when the Browns throw underneath he meets the receiver at the catch point to deliver a big hit. Robert Spillane is really good in the underneath zones, an area that hasn’t been a strength these last three weeks.

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

You probably remember this play, it was a great one to see, and announced Robert Spillane’s arrival as a Steeler linebacker. Spillane is fantastic defending these plays, he reads the field quickly and flies to the football. That also is key to my favorite part of Spillane’s game, and where he shines the brightest for the Steelers defense.

Week 6, 3rd quarter, 6:16. Robert Spillane is the linebacker in the middle of the field, approaching the line of scrimmage at the snap.

This is a Green Dog Blitz, it’s when a player blitzes because the player they are assigned to cover stays in to block. Spillane is a fantastic green dog blitzer, he’s able to switch between cover and blitz, and even switch back if he needs to. On this play he forces a more difficult pass for Baker Mayfield and the Steelers stopped the Browns again on third down. He’s also good when that running back runs a route.

Week 8, 3rd quarter, 11:59. Robert Spillane lines up over the slot receiver to the bottom of the screen.

Robert Spillane is the Steelers second best man coverage linebacker (behind Devin Bush), and that makes him even more valuable against the Browns. Whether they run, throw to a running back or keep their backs in to block, Robert Spillane brings an upgrade to the Steelers defense, but the key is his green dog blitzes.

The Browns started sending running backs to help block Alex Highsmith in week 17. This week T.J. Watt returns along with Cam Heyward, who will be matched up against the Browns 4th or 5th string guard, and with minimal practice time to get the line in sync. If T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward, Alex Highsmith and Stephon Tuitt are disruptive enough to cause the Browns to keep their running backs in to block, Robert Spillane’s ability to make an impact in those situations will be incredibly impactful.


Conclusion

Robert Spillane is perfectly built to face teams like Cleveland and Baltimore, ones that love to pass out of heavier sets and attack opposing linebackers. Robert Spillane played a big role in the Steelers blowout of the Nick Chubb-less Browns in week 6, and an even bigger role in the Steelers week 8 win over the Baltimore Ravens. They both are run heavy teams that also like to throw out of heavier sets, and the Browns are one of the better screen passing teams in the NFL. Having a linebacker that excels against those exact things coming back to the roster in time for the playoff matchup could be the most important addition to the Steelers defense this weekend.