Vince Williams started the 2020 season on fire. Through 4 games Williams had 9 tackles for loss, the most of any player through 4 games, to go with 2 sacks and 3 QB hits. The rest of the season Williams would record 1 sack, 1 QB hit and 4 tackles for a loss. The big change? In week 5 Devin Bush was hurt and missed the rest of the season. Vince Williams transitioned from an attacking role to having more coverage responsibility, and he stopped being a monster in the opponents backfield.
Devin Bush and Vince Williams had struggles together early in 2019, and grew into a good pair by the end of the season. In 2020 they took it farther, and it was noticeable how well they played off each other.
Devin Bush did not have great stats in 2020, nothing like the numbers he was putting up in 2019. But there wasn’t a sophomore slump on film. Bush took on increasingly difficult roles in the Steelers defense, and his speed and intelligence allowed the Steelers to blitz creatively, and the numbers for both Vince Williams and Mike Hilton show how effective that strategy was.
For the Mike Hilton side, feel free to look at Hilton’s 2017 season stats, when he had Ryan Shazier at linebacker for most of the season and his numbers through 5 games of 2020, and compare that to 2018 and 2019. When he had that smart, hyper-athletic linebacker freeing him up to attack more, Hilton becomes a menace, as I showed last week in the replay of week 2.
This week is all about Bush and Vince Williams, so let’s get to it, starting with run defense.
Through 5 games, the Steelers run defense was dominating, they had given up one hundred yards one time, and were averaging 66 yards rushing yards allowed a game. The 104 yards they had given up against the Broncos was their highest of that point in the season, only three of the remaining 12 games would end with less than 104 yards allowed and the Steelers would average 131 yards per game, almost double what they allowed with Devin Bush.
A big part of that was the change in Vince Williams’ role in the defense.
1st quarter, 0:30. Vince Williams is the linebacker on the yellow Hypocycloid.
This is what we want to see from Vince Williams. This is his peak value. The Texans are confident they can block Williams with a tight end. You can see Williams isn’t trying to avoid the block, or make a move to get off the block, he goes in to put a hit on the blocker, angling toward the ball carrier, and he bounces off the block right into the running back. Vince Williams isn’t the fastest linebacker, he’s not the elite athlete that can cover wide receivers and run down Lamar Jackson, he’s old school, he’s a hit you, knock you down, steal your soul and drop your running back for a loss kind of linebacker, in short, a Pittsburgh Steeler.
2nd quarter, 14:12. Vince Williams (#98) is the linebacker in the middle of the field.
This one I like even better. Sure it isn’t a tackle for a loss, but Williams beats the tackle to blow up the middle of the line, and more than that, look at the double team on Stephon Tuitt, Williams takes out the guard on his way through, freeing Tuitt up to head outside.
That’s buck linebacker gold. They weren’t going to double team Vince Williams, so he took out two lineman and forced the ball outside. This also shows how well Devin Bush plays off of the chaos Williams creates, he’s free to just run and find the ball, something he does extremely well.
Look at the moment right after Williams breaks into the backfield:
That running back has nowhere to go. The Texans had 3 lineman to block Tuitt, Williams and Bush. Because of Williams they got none of them. He makes the right choice, heading for Joe Haden (#23) and that gap, but he won’t even make it there because Devin Bush saw what just happened, he knows this has to go outside, and he makes the tackle.
2nd quarter, 5:02. Devin Bush (#55) is the linebacker on the hashmark to the right, Vince Williams (#98) is to his right.
Vince Williams doesn’t have a head of steam this time, and the pulling tackle does, he’s not winning that contact, but he is able to contain the run and slow down the back long enough for Devin bush to get there. Give some credit to Cameron Heyward for his job of squeezing the inside lanes and keeping his outside hand free, forcing the runner to go outside.
One of the more subtle, and most exciting things about Devin Bush in 2020 was how well he understood what was going on in front of him, and what it meant. We call it instinctual because we can’t imagine a human brain intaking that much information, processing it and coming up with optimal reactions that fast. Devin Bush just knows where to be, no matter what is going on in front of him, and with Vince Williams out their creating chaos and disrupting what the offense is trying to do, the opposing team found it very hard to run the ball.
In week 2 Denver worked their offense to pull Devin Bush out of the box. In week 3 the Steelers used more outside linebackers in coverage and Vince Williams, keeping Bush in the box.
1st quarter, 8:51. Devin Bush is the linebacker on the right hashmark.
This is a great play design by the Texans offense. They send their tight end in a jet seep style motion, and you can see Vince Williams heading to the left side of the screen to counter the personnel shift, but the tight end settles in as a FB and they snap the ball to run up the middle. This is a big win for the Texans, as they get one linebacker out of the box and a blocker primed for the other one with one motion. It doesn’t work. Devin Bush improved at getting off blocks from his rookie season, and got even better at just avoiding them in the first place. He was on his way to a phenomenal season, as one of the most important players on one of the NFL’s elite defenses.
Devin Bush was remarkable in the run game, especially playing with Vince Williams. But he may have been even more impressive defending passing plays.
1st quarter, 3:48. Vince Williams is the linebacker closest to the Steelers logo. Devin Bush is to the right of him.
Vince Williams doing Vince Williams things. That RB gets a good cut on Williams, and it just slows him down a bit. You can see Devin Bush taking the tight end across the middle, and Terrell Edmunds, who is taking the tight end that stays in to block, heading to the middle of the field in case that RB turns into a target. The speed and coverage ability of Bush, as well as Edmunds, allow the Steelers to be more aggressive while mitigating the risk that goes with it.
1st quarter, 7:18. Devin Bush is lined up in the middle of the field, just behind the defensive line.
Watch Devin Bush on this play, he drops, facing the #3 receiver (counting outside in) to the top of the screen. When that receiver cuts outside, Bush keeps dropping, and ends up making the tackle on a receiver in the middle of the field. Look at the deep defenders and you can see there is a bit of a cover-2 look going on here, with Bush carrying the #3 receiver up the hashmarks and then dropping into what looks like the Tampa-2 MLB zone.
3rd quarter, 5:24. Devin Bush is in the middle of the field, Vince Williams is lined up just behind T.J. Watt and Stephon Tuitt.
Here both Bush and Williams start out dropping like Bush does above. Vince Williams carries his receiver upfield on the seam route, keeping heavy inside leverage with a safety outside if the receiver heads that way.
Devin Bush starts to drop up the hashmarks, but when his receiver cuts into the middle, he picks him up with more traditional man coverage. To me this looks like a cover-2 variation of the pattern matching coverage that is usually used with cover-1 defense. The Steelers were using this defense a good bit before Devin Bush was injured, and it was starting to look like another defensive innovation (similar to the cover-3 variant they use in third and long with Cam Sutton dropping to deep middle zone) by the Steelers that would pay good dividends. Sadly that went away when Devin Bush was lost for the season. It will be interesting to follow the continuing evolution of this defense in 2021.
2nd quarter, 12:22. Devin Bush is the linebacker on the hashmarks to the bottom of the screen.
Devin Bush was a liability in man coverage on tight ends for about 4 weeks in his rookie season. Now he’s a strength. This is one of the reasons the Steelers can blitz and also get creative, because they have a guy in Devin Bush who can cover the vast majority of tight ends in the NFL.
Devin Bush is the linebacker on the hashmarks to the bottom of the screen.
This is a great example of teamwork. To start, look at Mike Hilton, lining up behind Bud Dupree, and Terrell Edmunds is behind Hilton. Hilton blitzes after his player motions into the backfield (a common move for Hilton). That means Terrell Edmunds in covering Hilton’s man, the guy who motioned to a fullback position. Devin Bush is on the running back, and the back stays in to block, picking up Hilton’s blitz nicely. That means Devin Bush can now blitz, but he also sees the fullback leaking out as Deshaun Watson is pressured, so he follows the likely escape valve for the quarterback.
With Watson scrambling his way and Edmunds already in coverage, Bush then goes in and gets a half sack on Watson.
The process of navigating that play, the changes in assignments and the fluid transition from one role to another by those key defenders shows the other reason the Steelers can be innovative and aggressive. As key defenders were replaced with special teams players and players who weren’t even on the team, the scheme simplified, and both the complexity and the aggressiveness of the defense had to drop.
Heading into 2021, one position the Steelers don’t need to worry about is inside linebacker, and that is because Devin Bush will be back. The Steelers didn’t have a backup able to fill the same roles Devin Bush did, because there are only a handful of linebackers in the NFL that can, the Steelers have one, and they were using him very well before he went on IR.