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Steelers Vertex: Loss vs. gain at inside linebacker, Part 1

Although he’s not new to the team, the return of Devin Bush should bolster the inside linebacker room.

NFL: Houston Texans at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

With changes in the Steelers roster from 2020 to 2021, we’re going to highlight players lost at a position and the production of the assumed replacement. Next up is the inside linebacker position where we will be looking at the return of Devin Bush as a “gain” for 2021. Next week we’ll follow up looking at how the return of Bush will change the pairings at the position.

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:

For this week’s study, we are comparing the return of Devin Bush to the production lost by Avery Williamson. When it comes to the player next to Devin Bush for 2021, it will be covered next week.

What’s surprising is the number of things that are extremely similar between Williamson and Bush in 2020. I’m ignoring Williamson’s stats with the Jets and only looking at his eight games with four starts for the Steelers. In those games, he played a total of 309 defensive snaps. As for Devin Bush, he started the five games in which he appeared for the Steelers and played 278 defensive snaps.

In the passing game, Avery Williamson was targeted 21 times with 16 completions for 146 yards. He was credited with surrendering two touchdowns through the air and gave up 76 yards after the catch. Devin Bush was targeted 22 times with 14 completions and 151 yards with one touchdown surrendered. Bush also only gave up 56 yards after the catch in 2020.

Both players came on a blitz 27 times each for the Steelers in 2020 with Williamson getting one sack, one quarterback knocked down and two pressures. Devin Bush was also credited with one sack in 2020 with three pressures and one hurry.

One area where these two players differ came in their tackles in 2020. Although both players were each only credited with four missed tackles in their time with the Steelers, Devin Bush had 26 combined tackles on the year while Avery Williamson had twice as many with 52 combined tackles with the Steelers.

While the numbers give a very comparable story between these two players, the film might give some other context to both why so many numbers were similar and yet why others were not.


The Film Line:

This is one of those fun times when statistics are easy to misinterpret, and seemingly tell a different story than the film does. But film doesn’t compete against stats (unless the stats were recorded wrong).

Let’s start with Avery Williamson.

Week 14, 3rd quarter, 13:02. Avery Williamson is the inside linebacker to the bottom of the screen, he is blitzing.

The Steelers blitz their inside linebackers a lot. On this play Williamson is the blitzer and you can see he isn’t great at it. The running back redirects his rush and then seals him out of the pocket. With time in the pocket and fewer defenders in coverage, Josh Allen finds Stephon Diggs for a big play. Week 14 was Williamson’s first start for Pittsburgh, Vince Williams and Robert Spillane were unavailable and the Steelers tried to force Josh Allen out of his comfort zone by blitzing Williamson 15 times. It didn’t work very well.

Week 14, 3rd quarter, 5:02. Avery Williamson is the linebacker right next to the Bills logo.

Williamson starts off by biting hard on the play action, and after that watch the angle he takes to the tight end. He isn’t contesting the route and catch, he’s playing to contain the gain. He makes the tackle, but it’s an 8-yard gain on first down.

Week 15, 1st quarter, 10:58. Avery Williamson (#51) is the inside linebacker to the left side of the screen.

Williamson does a good job fighting through the block to get in on the tackle, but he runs right into a block that moves that tackle back several yards.

Avery Williamson is a tackle collecting machine. He’s going to find a way to get to the ball, and his motor is good, he’ll run down plays all over the field, but he lacks the power, awareness or speed to a dynamic linebacker in zone coverage or against the run.

Week 16, 2nd quarter, 12:56. Avery Williamson (#51) is the inside linebacker on the hashmarks.

Jack Doyle is a good tight end, but he’s not a high-end athlete or route runner. He simply outruns Williamson and is open throughout this route. Williamson isn’t a linebacker that can be trusted to cover an average #1 tight end in the NFL.

It isn’t fair to compare Devin Bush and Avery Williamson, but these articles are about the losses and gains from last season, and for the last quarter of the 2020 season, Williamson was a starter. So here’s Devin Bush.

Week 3, 1st quarter, 3:48. Devin Bush is the inside linebacker to the right side of the screen, Vince Williams is to the left.

Here both Williams and Bush show abilities that Williamson doesn’t have. Vince Williams discards the running back to pressure Deshaun Watson and Devin Bush is able to stay with the tight end in coverage. The result is a sack.

Week 3, 2nd quarter, 12:22. Devin Bush is the inside linebacker closer to the middle of the field, on the NFL hashmarks.

That’s Devin Bush in coverage. Bush can lockdown tight ends that Avery Williamson (and most inside linebackers) can’t reliably cover. No need to give him deep help. The Steelers trust Devin Bush on an island against even the better receiving tight ends.

Week 3, 2nd quarter, 5:02. Devin Bush (#55) is the linebacker in the middle of the screen.

I love this clip. The guard knows his assignment is a tough one, he keeps his feet chopping to try and react fast enough to stay with Bush, and it doesn’t even matter. Bush reads the play, navigates the blockers and limits the gain to two yards.

The film shows us Devin Bush shutting down tight ends and navigating blockers to stuff runners. I didn’t even bother covering sideline to sideline speed, I think everyone knows Bush is an elite athlete with incredible lateral speed, Avery Williamson is just solid in that regard. Williamson collected more tackles than Devin Bush because he gave up catches, and gave ground to make sure he made the tackle. Williamson is a player that will limit big plays for the other team, Devin Bush is a player that creates big plays for his team, whether he collects the stat or not.


The Point:

This was definitely a case where the stats don’t paint the whole picture. While Avery Williamson did an admirable job filling in due to the various injuries the Steelers sustained at inside linebacker, he doesn’t bring the same traits to the table as Devin Bush. So to state what should be obvious to most Steelers fans, the return of Devin Bush is an instant upgrade over whoever else he would be replacing at the inside linebacker position.

The next question is looking at the options to play next to him. Stay tuned...