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Are the Steelers inside linebackers starting to mesh?

In the fifth game of the 2021 season, the Steelers ILBs were putting some good film out there for all to see.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Buffalo Bills Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers inside linebacker room is not what was expected during the 2021 offseason. With the retirement of Vince Williams, the trade for Joe Schobert, and uncertainty with Devin Bush returning from injury, expectations for the group range all over the place. But are those players who are seeing the field starting to come together? That is the topic for this week’s Steelers Vertex.

Let’s get a quick reminder of where this nerdiness is coming from.

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.

Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.

The Stats Line:

By a lot of metrics, the Steelers were not getting the most quality play from their inside linebackers so far in 2021. With Joe Schobert coming in mid training camp and Devin Bush coming off of a serious injury which cost of most of the 2020 season, it was taking these players some time to mesh together. But in Week 5, things really started to come together.

If looking at metrics such as the scores by Pro Football Focus, Joe Schobert was below average for his first three games with the Steelers but then saw a marked improvement in both Week 4 and again in Week 5. As for Devin Bush, his PFF scores were very low through Week 4, especially in Weeks 3 & 4 his overall score was in the 40s. But in Week 5 against Denver, Bush’s score shot up to an 80.1 before he left the game due to injury.

So what changed so much for these players to have their scores increase? It wasn’t that they’re tackling numbers made a big jump as actually they were less than the week before for both Bush and Schobert. Ultimately, both players did a nice job of stopping the run.

Additionally, the usage of the Steelers inside linebackers was different in Week 5 as they were sent more frequently on a blitz. According to Pro Football reference, Joe Schobert blitzed four times against the Broncos when he had only blitzed four times in the previous four games. Devin Bush was sent on the blitz on five occasions against Denver with only blitzing six times in his previous three games played. Since he was utilized in Week 5, it would only be appropriate to also mention Robert Spillane, who blitzed three times in Week 5 as well as three times and his only other action on defense in Week 2. So on the season, the Steelers have sent their inside linebackers on a blitz a total of 25 times, but almost half of those, 12 blitzes, occurred in Week 5.

So was it merely the blitzing that made for improved play at the inside linebacker position? We’ll have to check the film to see what it shows.

The Film Line:

Let’s get right into it...

Steelers v Broncos, 2nd quarter, 10:04
Joe Schobert is the linebacker on the hashmarks to the bottom of the screen.

This is the best I’ve seen Joe Schobert playing the run so far this season. He reads the play quickly, engages the lineman, then sheds the block to stop the runner’s forward progress, making it easy for Terrell Edmunds to finish the play.

Joe Schobert started the season looking slow. I think a lot of that was caused by the transition from being a 4-3 MLB to a 3-4 ILB. It’s not a big change, but he didn’t have any offseason to prepare either. He seems to be much more comfortable in the role now.

3rd quarter, 11:27
Joe Schobert is the linebacker to the bottom of the screen.

Schobert isn’t a high end athlete, and it shows here. Steelers fans saw Devin Bush outrun a lot of backs heading outside in 2019 and early 2020. Injuries have slowed Bush so far this season, and while Schobert navigates a blocker and keeps pace with the runner, he’s behind the play the entire time. Nothing wrong with Schobert’s play here, just showing his limitations.

Also notice Derrek Tuszca (#48, edge to the bottom) and Henry Mondeaux (#99, just inside Tuszca) putting in good work here. The Broncos see bottom of the depth chart guys and run at them, it gets 1 yard.

2nd quarter, 7:22
Devin Bush is the linebacker approaching the line at the snap. Joe Schobert is on the top hashmarks right near the goal line.

Let’s start with Schobert. The Steelers to the top of the screen are in a variety of matching here, Joe Haden takes the deep route, Terrell Edmunds underneath, but there’s no one on #83. It looks like Schobert is heading out to him before the collision with Edmunds, at which point he stops, reads the QB’s eyes, and #83 is wide open.

Bridgewater looks off that route, and from the positioning, I think it was T.J. Watt being in that passing lane that dissuades a throw. Devin Bush doesn’t give him time to reconsider and it’s a sack. The offense doubles Watt on this play, which is understandable, but also something Bush set up. Bush throws a subtle fake like he’s going to change direction to follow #83, and the RB buys it, and hurries to help block Watt.

Beautiful blitz by Bush, who hasn’t been the best blitzer in the past, but seems to have put a lot of work into it. The Steelers defense is great when the errors in coverage are negated by the pass rush, and Bush has stepped up to fill the void Vince Williams left in ILB blitzing.

3rd quarter, 2:41
Joe Schobert is the linebacker to the top of the screen, moving to the line at the snap

Joe Schobert, on the other hand, is not a good blitzer. Schobert runs right into the guard and is stopped. He gets zero penetration and is far enough back that he’s no threat to bat the ball when it is thrown. There are other Joe Schobert blitzes in this game, and none are any better than this one. At the same time I had a lot of great run-stuffing plays to choose from for this film room, and a lot of really good coverage snaps I could have shown as well. The Joe Schobert addition is starting to pay real dividends, just not when he blitzes.

2nd quarter, 2:00
Robert Spillane is the linebacker to the bottom of the screen.

Robert Spillane didn’t just come in when Devin Bush went down in Week 5. He was already getting snaps, taking the primary snaps in dime. You can see here that Spillane is just a bit too limited in range to be a dynamic playmaker, but his reading of the offense and reaction time are still top notch. The Steelers were working him into a rotation before Bush left the game. The Steelers like Spillane’s blitzing and coverage, and that would come into play the entire fourth quarter as the Steelers had a solid lead and the Broncos were throwing the ball.

4th quarter, 12:22
Joe Schobert is the linebacker to the top of the screen, in the slot.

First off notice Robert Spillane blitzing right up the middle here. If Spillane has to fill in for Bush for a game or more, he can take over the blitzing work from Devin Bush and be better at it than Schobert. Spillane looks healthy again, and if he’s back to full strength, he won’t be a huge drop off from where Devin Bush has been so far this season.

I also wanted to show this play because, while Joe Schobert is a really good coverage LB, you see him involved in a good number of coverage busts. Here you see a corner/out combo the Broncos run well, and you may remember this being run against the Steelers in 2020, with a very similar result. It messes with their pattern matching rules that have the corner jump a “fast out” but cover the outside receiver in most other situations. The Broncos attack that with the timing of the out cut, holding the linebacker just enough to let the receiver get upfield where the linebacker will be too far behind to cover them.

The Steelers solved this route combo in 2020 by having the linebacker head deep and the corner sitting on the out route every time, taking away the read Denver was exploiting. Joe Schobert wasn’t here in 2020 and spent all offseason in Carolina. There are important nuances to this defense he is learning on the fly.

4th quarter, 10:27
Joe Schobert is just inside T.J. Watt (#90) to the bottom of the screen, Robert Spillane is the linebacker behind him.

If the Steelers are without Devin Bush for a bit, their coverage ability is going to be fine. Robert Spillane plays this beautifully, the back thinks he’s open but Spillane is there waiting to jump and throw the entire time. Meanwhile Joe Schobert gets enough depth to force any deeper throw to have touch on it before coming up to shut off any chance of running for the TD.

Joe Schobert is getting more acclimated to the Steelers defense, Devin Bush is becoming a dangerous blitzer, and from the Denver game, it looks like Robert Spillane is back to full strength again.

The Point:

Much like the Steelers young offensive line, there are certain position groups where players need to be comfortable and confident in the player lined up beside them. Devin Bush and Joe Schobert now have four games together (since Bush missed Week 2) and seem to have a growing comfort level with what the other is doing. Although that is important, both players also seemed to be more comfortable with themselves and what they have been asked to do within the Steelers defense, or at least that was the case up until Devin Bush left the game. Hopefully Bush will be good to play in Week 6 since he was a full participant in Wednesday’s practice, and the inside linebackers can continue improve individually and collectively to be called on to do even more in the Steelers defense.