The Steelers kick off training camp next week with a host of storylines to follow. While much attention has been given to the changes on offense, from the elevation of Matt Canada to coordinator to the drafting of running back Najee Harris to the reshuffling of the offensive line, one of the most important developments is on the other side of the football.
Linebacker Devin Bush’s return from last season’s knee injury is a huge plus for Keith Butler’s unit. The defense is simply better when Bush is on the field. They play faster, rush the quarterback better, are better in coverage and are tougher against the run. Bush’s versatility allows Butler to vary his fronts, stunts and coverages without having to substitute, creating deception and flexibility.
Back in May, Geoffrey Benedict and Dave Schofield did a Vertex article on Bush’s return by juxtaposing his skills versus those of Avery Williamson, who replaced Bush in the lineup after Bush was injured. This film room takes a different tack. It examines two of the games against the Cleveland Browns from last season. The first game, in Pittsburgh in October, was a 38-7 romp for the home team in which the Steelers held Cleveland to 12 first downs and 220 total yards. Bush was all over the field, recording seven tackles, half a sack and playing great pass defense before suffering his season-ending ACL tear just before halftime.
The second game is the playoff contest against Cleveland in January. As we shall see, the Browns created mismatches in their game-plan to exploit Bush’s absence and had answers for just about every move Butler made to compensate. Cleveland hung 48 points on the Steelers in a demoralizing finish to a once-promising season.
Here’s a breakdown of those two games and of the impact Bush’s presence, and lack thereof, had on each.
October 18, 2020: Pittsburgh 38, Cleveland 7
An opening drive field goal for the Steelers followed by a pick-six from Minkah Fitzpatrick staked Pittsburgh to an early 10-0 lead. This did not deter Cleveland from their desire to pound the football, however. When they took possession midway through the 1st quarter, they loaded up in heavy (12) personnel and ran right at the Steelers.
It didn’t work. Pittsburgh countered with a 2-4-5 nickel look that invited Cleveland to attack their seemingly-outnumbered front. However, the Steelers cheated safety Terrell Edmunds (34) and nickel corner Mike Hilton (28) into the box just before the snap to create an 8-on-7 advantage. Pittsburgh’s defenders held their gaps on both sides of the ball, including Bush (55), who scraped patiently to lock down the backside cut. With the plus-one advantage, Vince Williams (98) came unblocked to drop running back Kareem Hunt for a loss:
On Cleveland’s next series, they tested the middle of the Pittsburgh defense again. With the ball on the left hash and Bush set to the field, Cleveland again went 12 personnel and aligned in an unbalanced look with both tight ends set to the right. They ran an inside zone concept, looking to get 6’6 tackle Jack Conklin (78) on the 5’10 Bush. But Bush beat Conklin to the hole, then squeezed the gap to prevent a seam from developing. Hunt was forced to bounce his run wide, where a host of Steelers swarmed him for a short gain:
Having no luck running inside, Cleveland tried the edge. They stayed heavy, aligning in 12 personnel with an extra offensive lineman to create an 8-man blocking surface. The Steelers countered with their 3-4 base defense and brought Edmunds into the box as an eighth defender. It was mano-a-mano up front, a scenario Cleveland must have felt confident they could exploit.
Once again, they could not. The Steelers set a hard edge, ran to the ball well and closed off the cutback lanes. Bush, who was aligned on the right hash on the backside of the play, did a nice job using his quickness to beat the reach block of the center. He scraped across the midline then neutralized the center’s block with a great two-hand punch to the chest, once again leaving Hunt with nowhere to go:
Soon after, the Browns found themselves in a 17-0 hole. At that point, they abandoned the run and let quarterback Baker Mayfield cut loose with his arm. Pittsburgh had a plan for that, too, with Bush again at its center.
First, Butler brought Bush (crowding the line of scrimmage outside the left hash) on a controlled blitz, where he drew a block from the running back to delay his check-release, then used his speed to pressure Mayfield into an incompletion when Mayfield bailed from the pocket:
Next, Bush (aligned directly over the ball at the snap) helped force an interception by blanketing Mayfield’s outlet receiver. Watch how Mayfield initially looked to his right as he took his drop. Then, when pressure from T.J. Watt forced him to step up in the pocket, he looked left for the back in the flat. Bush had effectively closed off that route, however. With the play now breaking down, and linebacker Bud Dupree closing in, Mayfield made a poor decision to throw off of his back foot into coverage, where corner Cam Sutton picked him off:
As the Steelers’ lead grew to 24-0, Butler stayed creative with how he used Bush. Here, from the base 3-4, he employed him as the “rat” to seal off the middle of the field, which Bush did effectively against an in-cut from tight end Austin Hooper:
Then, on a fire-zone stunt, Bush combined with Stephon Tuitt for a sack. Bush and Edmunds played a combo coverage on Hunt, with the defender to the side of Hunt’s release picking him up. Hunt released right, towards Edmunds, so Bush came on the delayed blitz. He used his quick closing speed to hammer Mayfield following Tuitt’s initial contact:
Finally, on the play where Bush was injured, he ran down D’Ernest Johnson (30) swinging out of the backfield. Bush’s coverage forced a poor throw from Mayfield. Had Mayfield put the ball on the money, Bush would have flattened Johnson. Instead, he planted awkwardly and was done for the season. It was a dark moment in an otherwise brilliant day for the Steelers.
January 10, 2021: Cleveland 48, Pittsburgh 37
The playoff rematch began as a near mirror-opposite of the October contest. Cleveland scored on defense on the first play from scrimmage, then converted an ensuing Pittsburgh turnover into another quick score. As the game progressed, it became clear the Browns were exploiting Bush’s absence in three significant ways, none of which the Steelers could adequately answer.
First, Cleveland used a healthy dose of 11 personnel to induce the Steelers into a 3-3-5 nickel that substituted a defensive back for the Mack (weakside) linebacker. They then ran the ball to the weak side, exploiting the matchup of their linemen on Pittsburgh’s undersized Mack player.
Here, the Browns attacked Terrell Edmunds (34), who was slotted into the Mack role. Edmunds was manhandled by the guard and running back Nick Chubb rambled for 17 yards:
The Steelers then tried Mike Hilton (28) at the Mack. Unfortunately, the results were similar. Cleveland ran at the weak side again, this time using a gap scheme that featured their left side blocking down and the right guard pulling and kicking the edge. They tried to block down on Hilton with wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones (11), who was compressed just outside the formation. Hilton beat the down block but was unable to read the play properly. He took himself out by running into the back of Robert Spillane (41), allowing Chubb to escape up the gut:
Cleveland’s second adjustment was to attack the perimeter when the Steelers played with two traditional inside backers. Once Pittsburgh scrapped the 3-3-5 by inserting Vince Williams at the Mack, the Browns immediately spread things out and forced Williams to play in space. They favored quick throws to the perimeter that made Williams navigate clutter and run to the football.
Watch here how Williams, aligned just outside the right hash at the 23 yard line, hesitated while reacting to the “now” screen thrown to Jarvis Landry. This allowed the left guard (68) to climb and reach him, pinning him inside. Only a nice job by Hilton of getting off a block and making a sound tackle kept this from being a big play:
Here’s another. With Williams aligned in the alley to the short side of the field, the Browns ran a slant-flat concept that served as a pick on Williams. Cleveland bet that Williams wouldn’t be able to navigate the pick and stay with Kareem Hunt as he worked to the flat. They were right. The pick wasn’t called and Cleveland got away with an easy catch and run:
Cleveland’s third major adjustment was to run the ball away from Spillane. This forced him to be the backside scrape and chase player, a role for which he was not well suited.
Think back to the earlier GIF that showed Bush beat the block of the center from the backside. Bush was quick enough to get over top of a lineman two gaps inside of him. Here, in stark contrast, Spillane (41) was unable to beat the reach block of the offensive tackle immediately to his right. He got hung up, lost ground, then was too high on his tackle and got bullied into the end zone by Hunt:
On this run, Spillane false-stepped away from the play and was again pinned by the guard. He provided no backside pursuit as Hunt glided easily into the end zone:
Whether it was running at smaller box defenders or exploiting bigger, slower ones in space, Cleveland did a nice job targeting the weaknesses in Pittsburgh’s defense created by Bush’s injury.
A healthy Bush, as we saw from the game in October, nullifies those advantages for an offense. He’s physical enough to play the inside run, fast enough to run plays down from the backside, skilled as a blitzer and capable of handling backs and tight ends in coverage. With him, Pittsburgh is an elite defense. Without him, they have matchup problems against versatile offenses. That’s why Bush’s return to the field, beginning at training camp next week, will be one of the biggest storylines of Pittsburgh’s 2021 season.