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2021 Steelers Roster Outlook: The Inside Linebackers

The Steelers have a lot of strengths, and options at inside linebacker.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Tennessee Titans Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

The inside linebacker position is led by Devin Bush, who in 2020 was talented and disciplined enough to take over Ryan Shazier’s roll in 2017, when Shazier took on a lot more responsibility, and while his individual stats dropped, the team took off. Bush did the same thing in 2020, and the Steelers defense similarly reached new heights.

But the really exciting part is that after Bush went down, Robert Spillane stepped in, and he and Vince Williams were able to keep the defense rolling. The Steelers are three-deep at inside linebacker, and there are plenty of opportunities to improve even more on the position if the Steelers want to, and the cards fall right.

Let’s start with the guys on the roster.

The Star of the show

Devin Bush: The Steelers traded up to get Devin Bush in 2019, and it was worth it. He was already crossing into elite territory early in 2020 before his injury, and he will turn 23 this summer.

He’s still really young, and he’s already incredibly good. The Steelers got a great one with Devin Bush. His weaknesses on the field include blitzing and his size, because height does matter at times in the NFL. Bush isn’t a good blitzer, but that’s fine, good blitzing linebackers aren’t hard to find. Linebackers with Bush’s lateral speed, awareness and tackling combined with top tier coverage ability is incredibly hard to find, and incredibly valuable. Devin Bush makes everyone around him better, for evidence compare Vince Williams and Mike Hilton’s stats before Bush was injured to the rest of the season.

Supporting cast

Vince Williams: Vince Williams gets a lot of flak for his limitations, but he’s a lot better than people realize, especially in coverage. He’s not fast, but he is solid in coverage when the job isn’t way outside his ability. He’s a fantastic run stuffer and a great blitzer. If he was more athletic we’d be drooling all over him and Devin Bush as an elite LB duo. Even without speed he still gets the job done, and he brings experience that makes him likely the most knowledgeable player on this defense that isn’t named Cameron Heyward, and he’s a vocal leader. That’s important stuff that doesn’t show up on film or stats.

I don’t expect the Steelers will move on from Vince Williams yet, he’s the kind of veteran you want helping Devin Bush and any other young LB you add to the roster in their development. Also he hits like a Steeler linebacker, you gotta love that.

Robert Spillane: He’s an Exclusive Rights Free Agent, so he isn’t technically on the roster, but the only way he isn’t on it in 2021 is if the Steelers just don’t want him at all, and that isn’t happening. Spillane is a very good special teams player that was forced to play defense when Devin Bush was hurt. In the next 8 games he recorded 44 tackles, 2 sacks, 4 TFL, 3 QB hits, 4 passes defended, a fumble recovery and an interception that he returned for a TD. Spillane isn’t Vince Williams or Devin Bush, but he’s solid across the board while also being the Steelers best green dog blitzer, which brings value as the Steelers use a lot of man coverage and green dog their linebackers a lot. His transition from man coverage to rushing and back make him an asset to the team, especially when Devin Bush is playing and the Steelers are committed to blitzing heavily.

The understudies

Marcus Allen: Allen was a safety coming out of Penn State, he saved his career by switching to linebacker this past summer, learning the linebacker roles in the defense in one offseason. He was a special teams player only until Devin Bush went down, and then he took over as the linebacker in dime formation. Toward the end of the year teams seemed to pick up on ways to exploit him, and there were several games where the Steelers dime defense was their worst package on film. There were other personnel losses at the same time, so his struggles could be akin to Vince Williams’ struggles late in the season, I haven’t dug deep enough to make an informed statement on that yet. Marcus Allen is also an Exclusive Rights Free Agent, and with his time played on defense will be the favorite to retain his job going into 2021, but 4th inside linebacker is likely going to be a pretty good roster battle this offseason, so we’ll have to wait and see what happens.

Ulysees Gilbert III: UG3 is an interesting player, and a great example of the limits of fans like me watching film and breaking down players. As a rookie in 2019 he looked like a steal, dominating in preseason action in coverage, run defense and as a blitzer. He then played the most snaps of any Steeler on special teams in at least 8 years before his injury. He didn’t see a single snap on defense that year. In the 2020 offseason there were reports of him making plays in camp, but when the season started he was dropped behind Robert Spillane and Marcus Allen. Gilbert would play in 4 games in 2020, picking up 33 defensive snaps and 46 special teams snaps, playing a lower percentage of ST snaps than he did as a rookie in those games. He recorded 5 tackles in those games.

Ulysees Gilbert III turns 24 this August, he’s still got time to fix what needs to be fixed to get a regular spot on the team. I think it is most likely learning the defense and showing he can make the reads and the calls he would need to make, the talent is there, but you need more than that.

Christian Kuntz: Undrafted in 2017, Kuntz ended up with the Steelers toward the end of the preseason in 2019, playing in the last preseason game, where he recorded a sack and 5 tackles. That didn’t get him through the roster cuts for the Steelers, but it helped him get a job in the XFL where he was a long snapper. The Steelers resigned him in March 2020, cut him in August, then added him to the practice squad in November. He signed a futures contract in January 2021 so he is on the roster currently. He doesn’t have a great shot at making the team.

Antoine Brooks Jr.: I’m adding Brooks Jr. to the inside linebacker room because he has the potential to make the same move that Marcus Allen did last season. In college Brooks Jr. played like a linebacker, recording 232 tackles, 27.5 tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks in his 36 games as a starter. He is listed at 220 lbs, which is heavier than Marcus Allen’s listed weight so he could be in the mix to make that kind of a move.

The Steelers have three proven players at the top, one of them a legit star at the position, with plenty of depth options under control for 2021. But there is still room to add another player to the mix if the Steelers want to. There’s no real need to do so, but there is opportunity.

Free Agency options

There’s only one reason to add a player to the Steelers inside linebacker room, and that is to upgrade the athleticism at the #2 inside linebacker spot. Like I said earlier, if Vince Williams was a better athlete he’d be a top linebacker in the NFL paired with Devin Bush. If the Steelers can find that kind of player, it could boost the Steelers defense even more.

The good news is, there are a decent number of linebackers that have been drafted higher because of their athleticism but have fallen out of favor because they aren’t coverage guys. The Steelers could pick one of those players up, give them significantly less coverage responsibility and let them attack the offense like Vince Williams.

Let’s look at some potential players that would fit that bill.

Jarrad Davis: A first round pick in 2017, his 2018 season showed his strengths and weaknesses, recording 100 tackles, 10 TFL, 10 QB hits and 6 sacks, while being a liability in coverage that made him a frequent target. After an injury in 2019 he returned in 2020 to play 14 games, but only started 4 as he fell out of favor for his coverage limitations.

Davis is the exact type of player the Steelers could take a chance on if the cost is as low as expected, and see if he can be the guy he was in 2018 again, only this time with far less coverage responsibility.

Raekwon McMillan: A 2017 2nd round pick for the Dolphins, an athletic run stuffer who isn’t good in coverage. He was traded to the Raiders before the season along with a 2021 5th round pick for a 4th round 2021 pick. He was active all season and started 4 games.

That’s the kind of free agent I can see the Steelers signing, cheap players that, like Vince Williams, aren’t the kind of linebacker teams want right now, but who could potentially thrive next to Devin Bush. And if they don’t work out the Steelers are still fine with what they already have.

Draft options

There are a lot of good young athletes in this year’s draft. As I’m starting to look at film I’m not certain the consensus top players are the best ones, and there are a lot of linebackers that will fall to the second and third round that could be a great pick up, and thrive in a role where they have less responsibility in their first seasons.

People talk a lot about the first round talents like Micah Parsons, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Zaven Collins. While any of those three would be great additions to the Steelers, I’m not looking for a first round linebacker with the needs the team has elsewhere.

I do like Nick Bolton out of Missouri, he’s got the explosiveness and hitting to fill Vince Williams’ shoes while bringing solid coverage ability, especially in zone, which bodes well for him learning the Steelers pattern match-heavy defense.

For a later pick, Jamin Davis from Kentucky is raw, but he’s big and rangy and he would have the opportunity to grow into the role as a depth linebacker before pairing with Bush in sub packages.

A draft pick at inside linebacker would be a luxury pick, and as much as I would love a top tier young athlete next to Devin Bush, I’m also excited to see what Keith Butler will do with the three that they have right now.