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Is Devin Bush the biggest problem with the Steelers run defense?

While there are many things going wrong with the Steelers defense, is it the former first-round pick that deserves most of the blame?

Pittsburgh Steelers v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers have struggled for several weeks to stop the run. One component of the problem has been the play of the middle linebackers, particularly former 10th overall draft pick Devin Bush. After missing most of the 2020 season due to an ACL injury, Bush has been a shadow of his former self this season. So what has specifically been his problem with defending the run? That is the subject 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:

When it comes to the statistics, it is difficult to break it down to look specifically at the stats in defending the run. While there are plenty of advanced stats about pass coverage, it’s difficult otherwise to say exactly how a player is defending the run other than looking at film.

With this in mind, here are some statistics for Devin Bush for the 2021 season. In 10 games started, Bush has 50 tackles on the season and 2.0 sacks according to Pro Football Reference. Devin Bush missed the Steelers Week 2 match up with the Las Vegas Raiders while he was nursing a groin injury. Returning in Week 3, the only other significant time Bush missed was in Week 5 when he left the game against the Denver Broncos and only played 42% of the defensive snaps.

Since there are not a lot of other statistics, I will outline Bush’s scores according to Pro Football Focus. Remember, the scores are open to interpretation and can be a good starting points for determining someone’s play but not the ultimate determination.

One thing that has not been a problem at Bush for most of the 2021 season is his tackling. With only four missed tackles on the season, Bush scored well in the tackling department according to PFF in most of his games. Scoring above a 73.0 in seven of the 10 contests, the only real outlier was a very poor tackling score against the Seattle Seahawks where he had two of his four missed tackles.

While Bush’s scores in tackling haven’t been terrible, his coverage scores have been average to just below average for most of the season. Where things get in trouble is the scores for run defense. Having poor scores through his first three games, Bush had his best game of the season by far against the Broncos before leaving with injury. After that point, the scores when it came to run defense saw four of the next six games being awful as they were under 30.0 points with one other game being at 35.9 against the Lions.

It should be noted that Devin Bush was having an outstanding game against the Denver Broncos with an 80.1 overall score and a 70.8 run defense score before leaving with an injury. Since that time, Bush hasn’t come anywhere close to the play that he was giving forth in Week 5.

So is it the ACL injury from 2020 which is bothering Bush? Has he not truly recovered from the leg injury he suffered in Week 5 against the Broncos? Did the leg injury shake his confidence? The cause is difficult to determine, but the film will likely give a better picture of what Bush is struggling with.

The Film Line:

Devin Bush hasn’t been playing well this season, and has become the focus of a lot of attention as the run defense has struggled so much the past few weeks. The run defense was terrible against Cincinnati, and Devin Bush is being talked about again. Let’s look at what happened in the Bengals game and how it is different from the much more succesful run defense Bush was a part of in 2020.

The Bengals came out in the first quarter with double tight end sets, running right at the Steelers defense, looking to exploit the same defensive line depth issues the Lions and Chargers exploited.

Steelers v Bengals, 1st quarter, 14:29.

Devin Bush (#55) is the linebacker in between the hashes.

Cameron Heyward is playing nose for the Steelers on this play, and he’s not a nose tackle. He slows the center down but can’t keep him from getting to Devin Bush, and Bush only gets one arm on Joe Mixon, barely slowing him down at all. Notice Henry Mondeaux (#99) trying to control the outside lineman, but he gets driven out of the play and Mixon goes right past him.

Steelers v Bengals, 1st quarter, 13:07.

Devin Bush (#55) is on the line, to the top of the screen.

A little over a minute later the Steelers have adjusted to their struggles inside by putting T.J. Watt in the middle to blow up the center. That puts Devin Bush outside as the edge defender, where he is blocked out of the play by Tyler Boyd. Bush, once he gets off the block is being outrun by Joe Mixon. Bush was being run at, and wasn’t able to do anything about it.

That’s why two minutes into the game Devin Bush had been benched in favor of Robert Spillane.

Steelers v Bengals, 1st quarter, 12:52.

Robert Spillane is the linebacker on the hashmarks to the top of the screen.

Spillane or Bush, it doesn’t matter here. The Bengals double team Cameron Heyward and run away from him, the rest of the line gets beaten and Spillane has a lineman in his face as the Bengals convert the short yardage run.

We are so used to this in 2021 that I think it is worth going back to Week 6 of 2020, when the Steelers faced the Browns in the game Devin Bush was injured.

2020 Week 6, Steelers v Browns, 3rd quarter, 05:59.

With two tight ends for the Browns, the Steelers put T.J. Watt in the middle. This is the same look as the Bengals run. The results are very different. Look at the defensive line, Cameron Heyward (#97, far left on the line) defeats his double team, holding the edge. Stephon Tuitt (#91) takes on a double team, going low and holding the line of scrimmage. Tyson Alualu is double teamed as well, and falls forward across the line of scrimmage. End result? Neither linebacker is touched, there is nowhere to run, and T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward make the tackle for no gain.

The Steelers front 5 beat the Browns talented offensive line as well as two tight ends to stuff the run without the inside linebackers even getting involved.

That’s how the Steelers defense stuffed the run in the past two years. It wasn’t inside linebackers beating lineman to make big stops, it was the D-line beating double teams, dominating 1v1 matchups and keeping the linebackers clean to run down anything that got outside the defensive front.

But even back then Devin Bush still had to take on lineman from time to time.

2020 Week 6, Steelers v Browns, 1st quarter, 08:58.

Bush starts 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage, and he beats the center to the run lane, getting square to the lineman as the center hustles to meet Bush. This gives Bush leverage that he can use to hold the line while Cameron Heyward (#97, right side) absolutely dominates his 1v1 matchup and comes across the formation to make the tackle.

Let’s look at a similar play from after Robert Spillane’s injury forced Devin Bush back into the game.

Steelers v Bengals, 1st quarter, 2:17.

Devin Bush is the linebacker in between the hashes.

Bush starts this play 6 yards off the line of scrimmage, but look at the difference in how quickly he gets to the play, the center gets free and meets Bush 3 yards downfield with leverage on his side. This isn’t a difference in strength or power, it’s a difference in speed that used to put Bush in position to win despite his size, to being slow enough to lose the battle from the start.

The Point:

I’d love to say Devin Bush is the problem, that it’s an issue of effort or mental lapses, but I don’t see that on film. I see a slower version of Devin Bush that is giving up yards in a game of inches because of his lost speed. But I see a lot more than that. I see a defensive line that a year ago could whip any offensive line in the NFL, and now the only player able to beat a 1v1 against a marginal offensive lineman is Cameron Heyward.

When a player is well below the 100% he was just over a year ago, and he is being put in a more difficult position, it is a recipe for disaster. With Bush not attacking like he was in 2020 and the players in front of him not chewing up the blocks like the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive front has been known for in the past, the resulting inadequacies are magnified exponentially.

Devin Bush is a liability. He is. Joe Schobert doesn’t look very good either. But the run defense problems go well beyond Devin Bush.