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What about the Steelers veterans? Part 1: Inside Linebackers

What can last year’s defensive performances teach about the upcoming year?

Cincinnati Bengals v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Now that the NFL Draft is in the books, and the Steelers have picked up nine new heads (and a bunch of UDFA talent, ahem), most of the talk is about grades and projections. I’ll leave that to the more informed voices. But I’ve been thinking about veterans too — especially on the outstanding Pittsburgh defense.

This spring, the team brought back Vince Williams and Tyson Alualu, both of whom seemed to have two feet out the door. Meanwhile, Steven Nelson was flat-out released, while Mike Hilton and Bud Dupree signed with other squads.

That’s a lot of shake-up for a first-rate roster to absorb. How it will affect the 2021 Steelers results is yet to be seen, but it got me thinking about what this team is losing and what it’s bringing back.

Quick Background:

Last November, with the Steelers sitting at 10-0 and their Thanksgiving matchup against Baltimore postponed repeatedly, the Pittsburgh defense was in position to lead the league in yards, points, sacks, and takeaways, as well as just about every category of passing defense.

I started collecting stats that empty weekend, thinking I might write a piece about the individual performances. Instead of trying to make sense of mid-season numbers, I looked at league rankings instead (using profootballreference.com as a guide). Then I did a little number crunching and broke the lists down by conference and position.

Ultimately, I wanted to know not just where, for example, Joe Haden ranked in in pass breakups, but where he ranked among CBs specifically (and then also in the AFC).

I never wound up writing that article, but I still had the stats, so I recently did a similar compilation for the end-of-season numbers. That’s left me with three data sets:

Weeks 1-10
Weeks 11-16
Full season

Comparing the performances during those sets will illuminate certain elements of the 2020 season, and perhaps help us figure out what we’ll have to look forward to in 2021.

This will take the form of a four-part report:
one on safeties,
one on cornerbacks,
one on pass rushers,
and this one, on inside linebackers.


This round: Inside Linebackers

Pittsburgh Steelers v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

First, a quick peak at the overall stats allowed by the Steelers ILBs.

Most of the categories below will be obvious. “Rat.” refers to the passer rating this defender allowed when he was targeted. “YAC” is the yardage allowed after the catch. “Cmb Tkl” is the player’s combined tackles (both solo and assists). And “MTkl” means missed tackles, as measured by Pro Football Reference.

First 10 weeks

Player Age G GS Cmp Tgt Cmp% Yds TD Int Rat YAC cmb tck MTkl
Player Age G GS Cmp Tgt Cmp% Yds TD Int Rat YAC cmb tck MTkl
Robert Spillane 25 10 5 10 21 47.6% 100 0 1 41.8 62 36 4
Vince Williams 31 10 10 15 28 53.6% 89 2 0 83.8 39 54 10
Devin Bush Jr. 22 5 5 14 22 63.6% 151 1 0 98.9 56 26 4
Avery Williamson* 28 2 0 -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- 1 --
TOTAL -- -- -- 39 71 54.9% 340 3 1 76.1 157 117 18
Avery Williamson’s stats are only counted when he was a Steeler. Williamson only logged 19 defensive snaps in his first three weeks at a Steeler (weeks 8 to 10), and only dressed twice. His season stats on other outlets might include his numbers with the Jets as well.

Games 11-16

Player Age G GS Cmp Tgt Cmp% Yds TD Int Rat YAC cmb tck MTkl
Player Age G GS Cmp Tgt Cmp% Yds TD Int Rat YAC cmb tck MTkl
Robert Spillane 25 10 5 6 9 66.70% 35 0 0 51.4 12 9 2
Vince Williams 31 10 10 7 7 100.00% 57 0 0 90.9 26 16 2
Devin Bush Jr. 22 0 0 - - - - - - - - - -
Avery Williamson* 28 9 6 16 21 76.20% 146 2 0 126.3 76 50 4
TOTAL - - - 29 37 78.40% 238 2 0 112.2 114 75 8
Note: Devin Bush went on IR and logged zero snaps in the second half of the season.

Entire Season

Player Age G GS Cmp Tgt Cmp% Yds TD Int Rat YAC cmb tck MTkl
Player Age G GS Cmp Tgt Cmp% Yds TD Int Rat YAC cmb tck MTkl
Robert Spillane 25 12 7 16 30 53.3% 135 0 1 51.4 74 45 6
Vince Williams 31 14 14 22 35 62.9% 146 2 0 90.9 65 70 12
Devin Bush Jr. 22 5 5 14 22 63.6% 151 1 0 98.9 56 26 4
Avery Williamson* 28 8 4 16 21 76.2% 146 2 0 126.3 76 52 4
TOTAL -- -- -- 68 108 63.0% 578 5 1 88.4 271 193 26

In a moment, we’ll look at some particular categories, but just looking at the overall stats, two things become instantly clear:

1) The Steelers pass defense faded significantly in the last six weeks of the season.

2) Robert Spillane was way better than advertised.

Both of these truths will continue the more we look. So let’s unpack a couple of categories.


Completion Percentage Allowed

Philadelphia Eagles v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

With a blitzing team, defending outlet passes and hot reads is essential. ILBs do a lot of that work. Steelers ‘backers also cover downfield more often than most. How well do they cover?

Games 1-10

NFL all AFC all NFL LBs AFC LBs Player G GS Cmp Tgt Cmp%
NFL all AFC all NFL LBs AFC LBs Player G GS Cmp Tgt Cmp%
10 5 1 1 Robert Spillane 10 5 10 21 47.6%
24 13 4 4 Vince Williams 10 10 15 28 53.6%
91 49 8 6 Devin Bush Jr. 5 5 14 22 63.6%
-- -- -- -- Avery Williamson 2 0 0 0
The rankings were all calculated by me, from Pro Football Reference data. In some cases, the player was tied for a certain ranking, though I didn’t indicate that here.

What jumps out at me is that the Steelers ILBs started the year very strong in this area. Spillane was the top inside linebacker in the NFL (and 10th best qualifying player in the entire league). Meanwhile, Vince Williams and Devin Bush were both in the top 10 in the NFL among ILBs.

In other words, passing on the Steelers ILBs (i.e. short and over the middle) was a fool’s errand. It didn’t matter who you targeted; they were all outstanding. Or at least they were in the first 10 weeks.

Games 11-16

NFL all AFC all NFL LBs AFC LBs Player G GS Cmp Tgt Cmp%
NFL all AFC all NFL LBs AFC LBs Player G GS Cmp Tgt Cmp%
-- -- -- -- Robert Spillane 2 2 6 9 66.7%
-- -- -- -- Vince Williams 4 4 7 7 100.0%
-- -- -- -- Devin Bush Jr. 0 0 0 0 --
-- -- -- -- Avery Williamson 6 4 16 21 76.2%
I could isolate the numbers from games 11-16, but there was no way to determine league rankings during that stretch.

The entire team took a nose dive as the Steelers slumped to 2-4 down the stretch. The number that leaves me most thunder-struck is Vince Williams’ 100% completion percentage allowed. Goodness.

Williams’ own injuries no doubt effected these numbers, but I also can’t help but notice that Bud Dupree’s departure against Baltimore in the Steelers’ 11th victory seems to be a turning point. We all know pressure affects coverage. It seems that was true here for sure.

Full Season

NFL all AFC all NFL LBs AFC LBs Player G GS Cmp Tgt Cmp%
NFL all AFC all NFL LBs AFC LBs Player G GS Cmp Tgt Cmp%
15 11 1 1 Robert Spillane 12 7 16 30 53.3%
85 51 8 5 Vince Williams 14 14 22 35 62.9%
-- -- -- -- Devin Bush Jr. 5 5 14 22 63.6%
-- -- -- -- Avery Williamson 8 4 16 21 87.0%
Bush didn’t defend enough targets to qualify for full-season ranking. Williamson’s stats are split between two teams, so there was no way to calculate his Steelers-only rankings.

Despite the late-season slide, Spillane and Wiliams were both very strong in opponent’s completion percentage on the year, and Bush was on an excellent pace. Spillane, as we’ll see, played at a Pro Bowl level in nearly all categories. But Williams, who isn’t known for his coverage skills, was no slouch in this area as well.


Passer Rating Allowed

Pittsburgh Steelers v New York Giants Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Games 1-10

NFL all AFC all NFL LBs AFC LBs Player G GS Tgt Rat
NFL all AFC all NFL LBs AFC LBs Player G GS Tgt Rat
2 2 1 1 Robert Spillane 10 5 21 41.8
66 33 12 7 Vince Williams 10 10 28 83.8
135 67 38 21 Devin Bush Jr. 5 5 22 98.9
-- -- -- -- Avery Williamson 2 0 0 0

Once again, Robert Spillane just leaps off the page. (We’re going to say a lot of that today.) While Williams was a big step down in this area, he was also one of the top coverage linebackers in football through ten weeks. Devin Bush was surprisingly vulnerable, but that might have more to do with the Steelers sending him downfield to cover wide receivers, rather than him being lost in coverage.

In the end, it’s really no surprise that this team was a powerhouse through those first three months.

Games 11-16

-- -- -- -- Player G GS Tgt Rat
-- -- -- -- Player G GS Tgt Rat
-- -- -- -- Robert Spillane 2 2 9 73.8
-- -- -- -- Vince Williams 4 4 7 119.3
-- -- -- -- Devin Bush Jr. 0 0 0 0
-- -- -- -- Avery Williamson 6 4 21 126.3
Statistics did not allow for league/conference rankings from weeks 11-17

Again, we see a precipitous drop from games 11 to 16. Swapping Avery Williamson for Devin Bush certainly didn’t help. But Vince Williams gave up a staggering 119.3 rating as well. (Hard to be surprised, given his 100% completion percentage allowed.)

Full Season

NFL all AFC all NFL LBs AFC LBs Player G GS Tgt Rat
NFL all AFC all NFL LBs AFC LBs Player G GS Tgt Rat
3 3 1 1 Robert Spillane 12 7 30 51.4
104 53 26 12 Vince Williams 14 14 35 90.9
-- -- -- -- Devin Bush Jr. 5 5 22 98.9
-- -- -- -- Avery Williamson 15 10 21 126.3
Bush and Williamson did not qualify for season rankings.

Again, there’s Spillane, absolutely killing it. Sometimes a replacement player balls out for part of a year, and never catches that lightning again (think: Cortez Allen). But if you had to put money on which Steelers linebacker will be next to head to Hawaii, you’d be right to take a hard look at Spillane before placing any bets.


Yards After Catch (YAC) Allowed

Baltimore Ravens v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

This is the other half of the completion percentage question: when the offense does catch the ball, how well did the Steelers ‘backers cover up?

Games 1-10

NFL all AFC all NFL LBs AFC LBs Player G GS Tgt Cmp Yds YAC /Tgt
NFL all AFC all NFL LBs AFC LBs Player G GS Tgt Cmp Yds YAC /Tgt
118 48 9 6 Robert Spillane 10 5 21 10 100 62 3
10 10 2 2 Vince Williams 10 10 28 15 89 39 1.4
68 31 5 4 Devin Bush Jr. 5 5 22 14 151 56 2.5
-- -- -- -- Avery Williamson 2 0 0 0 0 0 0

Again, the Steelers look outstanding in this first stretch of games. In this case, it’s Vince Williams who paces the team, and looks like a league leader. But all three main Steelers ILBs are in the top ten at the position in the NFL. That’s ridiculous.

(Side note: categories like this were the reason I got interested in positional rankings. If you just looked at the league’s best in YAC allowed per reception, Williams looks good, in 10th, but Bush is 68th and Spillane 118. Not terribly impressive. But as soon as you start accounting for position, this team has three of the top six ILBs in the conference at tackling the catch.)

Games 11-16

NFL all AFC all NFL LBs AFC LBs Player G GS Tgt Cmp Yds YAC /Tgt
NFL all AFC all NFL LBs AFC LBs Player G GS Tgt Cmp Yds YAC /Tgt
-- -- -- -- Robert Spillane 2 2 9 6 35 12 1.3
-- -- -- -- Vince Williams 4 4 7 7 57 26 3.7
-- -- -- -- Devin Bush Jr. 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
-- -- -- -- Avery Williamson 6 4 21 16 146 76 3.6

In this stretch, the team remains strong. Avery Williamson fills in for Devin Bush just fine, and Spillane (albeit in only two games) improves dramatically. The Steelers tackle the catch. That seems pretty clear.

Full Season

NFL all AFC all NFL LBs AFC LBs Player G GS Tgt Cmp Yds YAC /Tgt
NFL all AFC all NFL LBs AFC LBs Player G GS Tgt Cmp Yds YAC /Tgt
62 31 4 3 Robert Spillane 12 7 30 16 135 74 2.5
17 11 1 1 Vince Williams 14 14 35 22 146 65 1.9
-- -- -- -- Devin Bush Jr. 5 5 22 14 151 56 2.5
-- -- -- -- Avery Williamson 8 4 21 16 146 76 3.6
Williamson and Bush’s stats did not allow for league rankings

This is a particularly impressive category. Vince Williams was the top linebacker in football at tackling the catch with no extra yards. Robert Spillane was 4th in the NFL among linebackers, and Devin Bush was on pace to also finish in the top 5. This is a powerful unit.


Pittsburgh Steelers v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Missed Tackles

Missed tackles was one of my bigger frustrations last year, and the one category I could calculate which also accounts for the running game. I used PFR’s “Missed Tackles” as my stats (I don’t know how you determine that in real-time), and leaned on their “Missed Tackles Percentage” as the scale.

Games 1-10

NFL all AFC all NFL LBs AFC LBs Player G GS Tgt Comb MTkl MTkl%
NFL all AFC all NFL LBs AFC LBs Player G GS Tgt Comb MTkl MTkl%
246 117 39 20 Robert Spillane 10 5 21 36 4 10.00%
395 194 62 31 Vince Williams 10 10 28 54 10 15.60%
352 174 55 26 Devin Bush Jr. 5 5 22 26 4 13.30%
-- -- -- -- Avery Williamson 2 0 0 1 0 0.00%
Missed tackle percentage is calculated by dividing the missed tackles by the total tackle attempts (actual combined tackles plus those missed). That tells the percentage of total tackle attempts that failed.

Ah. Well, you knew one of these categories would look rougher. The missed tackle rate really was a problem last year — that wasn’t an illusion. Oddly, Avery Williamson was one of the league’s best in this realm when he was a New York Jet, recording 61 tackles with only 2 missed hits, for a 3.2% rate — third in the league among inside backers.

Games 11-16

NFL all AFC all NFL LBs AFC LBs Player G GS Tgt Comb MTkl MTkl%
NFL all AFC all NFL LBs AFC LBs Player G GS Tgt Comb MTkl MTkl%
-- -- -- -- Robert Spillane 2 2 9 9 2 18.20%
-- -- -- -- Vince Williams 4 4 7 16 2 11.10%
-- -- -- -- Devin Bush Jr. 0 0 0 0 0 0.00%
-- -- -- -- Avery Williamson 6 4 21 51 4 7.30%

And there goes that slump again. Not everybody fell off the cliff in the final six weeks (Vince Williams improved slightly), but this is just not an impressive category.

Full Season

NFL all AFC all NFL LBs AFC LBs Player G GS Tgt Comb MTkl MTkl%
NFL all AFC all NFL LBs AFC LBs Player G GS Tgt Comb MTkl MTkl%
331 147 59 26 Robert Spillane 12 7 30 45 6 11.80%
404 192 68 30 Vince Williams 14 14 35 70 12 14.60%
369 169 65 27 Devin Bush Jr. 5 5 22 26 4 13.30%
-- -- -- -- Avery Williamson 8 4 21 52 4 7.10%
Williamson’s split season did not allow for a league ranking specific to the Steelers

What can we glean here? Given how well the Steelers tackle the catch, I’d say this mediocrity is a reflection of the team’s run defense. And, given the struggles this team had at stopping the run (later in the year especially), this is not surprising. It’s pretty disappointing though.


What did we learn?

Baltimore Ravens v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

With Robert Spillane and Devin Bush coming back healthy, and Vince Williams returning for another season, the Steelers inside linebacker rotation is in excellent shape. Avery Williamson may not be returning, but he was the weak link in 2020, especially in pass defense. I’d feel more comfortable with him in the lineup rather than Ulysses Gilbert III or a rookie. But at this point, the top of the order seems like one of the league’s best.

Then there’s the slump.

I mentioned Bud Dupree’s injury as a factor in the late-season slide. Spillane and Williams also missed time, and Bush was gone for most of the season. That couldn’t have helped either. But I want to point to one other driver of this extended stumble: exhaustion. The Steelers’ extra-long slog, with no bye week, and with numerous post-ponements, seems to have really hurt this team. It was dumb luck that I tracked stats just before the Thanksgiving game against Baltimore — that may have been the week that pushed a lot of these exhausted men over the edge. It certainly looks that way.

But when they’re healthy, this is still looking like one of the best defensive units in football. Stay tuned for Safeties, Cornerbacks, and Pass Rushers. Go Steelers.