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Steelers Vertex: Loss vs. gain at inside linebacker, Part 2

With the return of Devin Bush, what production can be expected from the players next to him?

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens Mitchell Layton-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. Last week we looked at the inside linebacker position and the return of Devin Bush as a “gain” for 2021. This week we are following up by 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:

While there are other players who can get into the mix at inside linebacker, we’re just going to focus on Robert Spillane and Vince Williams at this time. If Buddy Johnson could become part of the picture right away, that’s good news for the Steelers. While acknowledging this as a possibility, we can look into that more at a later date if it appears to be a bigger possibility.

First, we will be focusing on the 2020 season when it comes to breaking down the statistics for Vince Williams and Robert Spillane. Williams appeared and 14 regular season games and started every game in which he played. Williams finished the season with two fumble recoveries, 3.0 sacks, and 70 combined tackles. Williams also had a career high in tackles for loss with 14 and added four quarterback hits.

When looking at Williams advanced statistics, he was targeted 35 times in the passing game with 22 completions (62.9%) for 146 yards and was credited with giving up two receiving touchdowns according to Pro Football Reference. Williams also was sent on a blitz on 47 snaps where he had two hurries, one knock down, six pressures, and the previously mentioned 3.0 sacks.

As for Robert Spillane, he appeared in 12 games for the Steelers in 2020 and started seven. Spillane had one interception returned 33 yards for a touchdown along with four passes defensed. He also added one fumble recovery, 2.0 sacks, 45 combined tackles with four of them for loss, and three quarterback hits.

The advanced stats show even more how Spillane was used in the Steelers pass defense. Targeted 30 times, Spillane only gave up 16 completions (53.3%) for 135 yards and no touchdowns. He was sent on a blitz 30 times last season with four hurries, one quarterback knocked down, seven pressures, and 2.0 sacks.

Based solely on the numbers, it appears Williams may hold the edge when it comes to run defense, but Spillane was much more efficient in defending the pass. Perhaps the film will tell us even more.

The Film Line:

When we look at the film for these two linebackers, the biggest factor we have to consider is Devin Bush. Bush is the Steelers star linebacker, and when we talk about the other linebacker, their value is going to be based on how well they compliment Bush’s talents.

Bush is an elite athlete who reads the offense and gets to the ball in a hurry. While he can get off blockers, he’s much more valuable when he doesn’t have to.

Week 3, 2nd quarter, 14:12. Vince Williams (#98) is between the hashes, Devin Bush (#55) is to his right.

This is one of my favorite Vince Williams plays of the season. The Texans have three lineman to deal with Stephon Tuitt and Vince Williams. Vince Williams beats his blocker, but he does more as he shoves the guard blocking Stephon Tuitt to free Tuitt up as well. Devin Bush is untouched and the running back does a good job to gain 1 yard.

Robert Spillane didn’t play with Devin Bush, he came in as Bush’s replacement. Spillane shows the ability to read the play and get to the ball carrier, but when he had to take on blockers, he wasn’t on Vince Williams’ level at all.

Week 6, 4th quarter, 8:03.Robert Spillane is the linebacker between the hash marks.

Vince Williams forces the run to the middle, back to Robert Spillane, who can’t get off the block to make the tackle and Terrell Edmunds has to run the play down. Spillane improved at getting off blocks as the season progressed, but he isn’t a Buck linebacker. He’s not a guy you want attacking blockers like Vince Williams.

In coverage, Robert Spillane has the advantage over Williams.

Week 8, 3rd quarter, 11:59. Robert Spillane moves out to cover the slot to the bottom of the screen.

Spillane comes out to cover J.K. Dobbins, sending Vince Williams in to blitz. Spillane shows great timing challenging routes like this, and he’s more than a match for most running backs and the less athletic tight ends. Vince Williams isn’t a great cover linebacker. He’s built for battling blockers, not for quickness and change of direction, but that doesn’t mean he’s terrible.

Week 13, 3rd quarter, 14:51. Vince Williams is the linebacker to the bottom of the screen, between the hash marks and the numbers.

Washington made a point of attacking the Steelers linebackers in the passing game. Here they expect that the route taking Williams deep will give room to get the wide receiver running free on first and 23. You can see Vince Williams isn’t the quickest at changing directions, but his intelligence and anticipation gets him to the ball in time to limit any yards after the catch. Vince Williams knows the defense and executes the mental aspect of the game at a high level, and that keeps him a serviceable linebacker in coverage.

Vince Williams is to the left side of the screen, lined up behind #78 on the offensive line. Robert Spillane is on the hashmarks.

This isn’t bad coverage from Vince Williams manned up on a pretty good receiving tight end. He’s smart enough to get the most out of the contact he’s allowed to make at the 5 yard mark. The real star of this play is Robert Spillane’s “Hug Blitz.” Spillane is responsible for the running back who stays in to block. He does a great job of rushing to the back, staying in line with him until the back is fully committed to his block, and Spillane records a sack. Spillane is fantastic on these blitzes, showing ability to break off and cover when the back slips out and to finish the rush if they don’t.

Of course, Vince Williams is also a good blitzer.

Week 7, 3rd quarter, 3:44. Vince Williams is the linebacker in the middle of the hash marks.

Williams is ready to blow up a run, and when he sees it’s play action he just side steps Derrick Henry and gets a sack. Vince Williams is better as a run blitzer turned pass rusher than Robert Spillane, because he’s better at beating blockers. You can also see Robert Spillane (#41) react to the play action and drop into coverage on this play. Both of these linebackers were valuable to the Steelers and they played well together when Bush went down, and with help from other players, the defense still thrived despite missing Bush.

Spillane is better in coverage, and better at blitzing when his man stays in to block. Vince Williams is better in run defense, and in taking on blockers to keep Devin Bush free to make plays.

The Point:

As you can see from both lines of thinking, Robert Spillane and Vince Williams bring different strengths and weaknesses to the Steelers linebacker room. What the Steelers will need to figure out in 2021 is both how and when to utilize each player for maximum output. Getting the right guy on the field at the right time alongside Devin Bush will only make this defense even better.

Since defense is often the reactionary unit, it would likely come down to offensive personnel on the field as to whether or not Williams or Spillane would be the best player to deploy. Even though both players have their strengths, it’s also not as if they have such a glaring weakness that if a team tries to get certain defensive personnel out there to exploit they can still get the job done. After all, it’s Devin Bush who should be the driving force of the inside linebackers with others complimenting him based on the situation. Also, if the Steelers need to sit Bush for some snaps, deploying both Williams and Spillane is an option as well because those two played really well together in 2020.