This article is a follow up to the “Here We Go” podcast Bryan Anthony Davis and I did last Friday. Our focus was on inside linebackers, where the Steelers have seven viable players competing for what will likely be five roster spots. In that sense, the team is deep enough at the position. But is it good enough? That’s a question worth considering as we head towards the season.
The seven players in question include returning starter Devin Bush, free agent acquisition Myles Jack, veteran thumper Robert Spillane, fourth-year player Ulysses Gilbert III, converted safety Marcus Allen, second-year man Buddy Johnson, and rookie 7th Round draft pick Mark Robinson. It’s a group that lacks star power, in the sense there’s no elite player among them, but is deep in terms of athleticism and potential. The Steelers would probably be comfortable keeping any of the seven on their active roster. That won’t happen, though, given the restraints of the 53-man limit. So, at least one, and likely two, won’t make it.
Here’s a quick breakdown of each candidate before we turn to the question of whether the unit as a whole is good enough to be successful.
Bush struggled last season as he recovered from the knee injury he suffered in 2020. He will have plenty of incentive to play better this year, considering the Steelers declined the fifth-year option on his rookie contract, which will make him a free agent after the season. Bush will be playing for a new deal, either in Pittsburgh or somewhere else.
When we watch his film from last season, we see a player who was limited both mentally and physically. The physical part was obvious, given his attempt to make a quick turnaround from his ACL tear. The mental part is probably tougher for fans to understand. I tore my labrum and dislocated my shoulder during my sophomore season in college, which required surgery. I was not the same player as a junior. I developed a bad habit of using the wrong shoulder when taking on blocks for fear of re-injury. A dislocation is not pleasant, and the labrum tear required extensive rehabilitation. It was in the back of my mind that entire season, and it wasn’t until senior year, when I knew the shoulder was healthy, that I felt confident again.
Bush must have similar concerns about his knee, especially since he’s playing on a far bigger stage. You could see him struggle with change-of-direction last season, which likely signaled a hesitancy to push off and burst. Hopefully, his confidence improves this year, which should equate to better performance.
More troubling with Bush, though, are some of the fundamental errors he made that have nothing to do with his injury. Take this play from the Week 11 loss to the Chargers. Bush, aligned on the hash at the 1-yard line, gets fooled on a counter run. He should dual-read the guards, meaning he should diagnose the action of both guards at once. This may seem difficult, but “reading the triangle,” meaning seeing all the movement in the area between both guards to the running back, is common for inside backers. This would allow Bush to see the pull from the right guard and to work in that direction. Instead, he gets influenced by the initial movement of the left guard, the center and the back, leading to a false step from which he cannot recover:
For Bush to improve, he can’t get caught out of position and imperil the gap-integrity of the scheme. He must be better with his eye discipline and play diagnosis. His speed is likely to recover, but the degree to which he can be more fundamentally sound will greatly impact the success of the defense.
Jack is the best pure linebacker of the seven players we’re examining. He was slowed by injuries in 2019 and 2020, when he missed seven combined games, but he rebounded in 2021 to total 108 tackles, the third time he’s breached the century mark in his six-year career. When healthy, he’s played at a Pro Bowl level and could be the best inside backer in Pittsburgh since Ryan Shazier.
There are questions about how well he’ll fit along side Bush, though, since the two have comparable skill sets. Traditionally, the Steelers have slotted one inside backer at the Buck and another at the Mack. The Buck is often the bigger of the two and is commonly tasked with playing downhill and filling gaps. The Mack is more of a scrape-and-chase weak-side defender who tends to be more athletic and cover more ground. Bush and Jack both seem better suited to play the Mack. Which, then, will draw the dirtier, more physical duties of the Buck?
That may fall to Jack since, at present, he’s more accomplished at reading and shedding blocks. He’s also bigger, at 6’1-245, compared to Bush (5’11-235). When the defensive line can keep Jack clean, he’s shown he can play well on the strong side. Watch here how patient he is, and how he stays in good tackling position by remaining square. This is excellent fundamental linebacker play:
A defensive front that returns Tyson Alualu and, hopefully, Stephon Tuitt should be better at anchoring the line of scrimmage than they were last season. If Jack stays healthy, this may allow him to flourish.
With Spillane, you know exactly what you’re getting: a Buck linebacker who plays downhill like it’s 1989. Spillane has limited range and can struggle in coverage. But as a situational run-stuffer, he’s excellent.
It’s hard to forget Spillane’s signature hit on Tennessee’s 250-pound battering ram Derrick Henry in this game from 2020. The GIF doesn’t do the hit justice because you can’t hear the sound it made when Spillane crashed into Henry at full speed. Think two rams colliding in the Rocky Mountain wilderness:
Spillane’s value to the Steelers is clear. He’s not ideal if asked to play every down. But, as a role player who specializes in stopping the run, he possesses a necessary skill set.
Ulysses Gilbert III
No one around BTSC has followed Gilbert’s career as closely as Shannon White, so I reached out to Shannon for his thoughts. Here’s a screen shot of his reply:
The injury Shannon references occurred when Gilbert was a rookie in 2019 and flared up again in 2020. Like Bush, it seems to have affected his performance on the field. Gilbert has made some solid contributions on special teams, including a scoop-and-score off a blocked punt in the season-opening win at Buffalo last season. However, with tough competition for the roster spots at inside backer, Gilbert may have to show he can do more to stick around.
Some fans were puzzled when the Steelers brought Allen back this off-season on a one-year, $2.5 million contract. Allen played just 6% of the team’s defensive snaps last season, and was unremarkable in doing so. At 6’2-215, he is undersized at both the Mack and the Buck, so it’s hard to see where he fits. Perhaps, with new defensive assistant Brian Flores on board, Allen will be used as a blitzer and coverage specialist. Flores likes versatile players who can execute a variety of roles, and he may have something in mind for Allen. Otherwise, Allen will have to make the roster on special teams. He was valuable there last season, playing 65% of the special teams snaps. The Steelers will have to decide if that’s enough to warrant a $2.5 million salary.
Neither Allen nor Gilbert has really distinguished themself in Pittsburgh, so It seems unlikely the Steelers will keep both. It may be a competition between the two for a single roster spot.
One of the more intriguing players of the inside linebacker group is second-year man Buddy Johnson. Johnson is built like a Buck at 6’2-240 and certainly hits like one. In college, he had over 200 career tackles while showing good instincts and a knack for finding the football.
Johnson was active for just four games last season, with his only action on defense coming in Week 14 at Minnesota. That provides a limited sample size, but does give us a peek at his abilities.
First, we can see how quick he is to read his keys and react. Johnson (45), aligned on the right hash, recognizes the full-flow of this wide zone run play and does a nice job beating the cut-off block of the right offensive tackle. He’s a little too aggressive and winds up over-pursuing, leading to an attempted arm tackle on Dalvin Cook. But you can see the suddenness with which he plays, which is attractive in any linebacker:
In pass coverage, Johnson was thought to be a liability coming out of college. He had some good reps against the Vikings, though, especially this snap. Watch as Johnson (45, right hash) shows nice agility in recovering from his initial reaction to the play fake, and good fluidity in his hips when changing direction. He does a great job sinking under the crossing route to force quarterback Kirk Cousins to come off that read and throw into a tight window, leading to an interception:
Again, it’s a very small sample size, but there are some encouraging signs on tape.
Interest in Johnson should be elevated by Pittsburgh’s decision to decline Bush’s fifth-year option. This means the Steelers could need a starter to play beside Jack in 2023. With Jack a more natural fit at the Mack, and Johnson a true Buck, those two are an intriguing duo. Johnson has a long way to go before being anointed a starter, but he has the tools to make it happen.
7th Round pick Mark Robinson screams “project.” He’s a converted running back who played just one year of linebacker at Ole Miss. There is little chance he will contribute to the defense in 2022. However, he’s an explosive player who accelerates to contact with great aggressiveness and, once he gets there, knows how to finish:
That aggression can be detrimental, as Robinson can be fooled and run himself out of position. He has a lot to learn to master the nuances of playing linebacker. The Steelers would probably love to stash him on the practice squad for a year and work on his development. He may, however, show enough with his ability to run and hit to retain as a sixth inside backer and special teams contributor. One way or another, my suspicion is Robinson will stick around. He’s an intriguing player with enough potential for the Steelers to keep him.
Are the Steelers good enough at inside backer?
I think the answer is yes, but that comes with caveats. Yes, if Bush plays more like he did before the injury. Yes, if Jack can hold up at the Buck. Yes, if Spillane can not get exposed. Yes, if Johnson shows progress. That foursome could be pretty good, provided the Steelers get something close to a best-case scenario out of each.
If things go south, however, and the injury bug that has hindered Bush and Jack resurfaces, and Spillane has to play more than he should, and Johnson isn’t able to handle a bigger role, and Allen and/or Gilbert continue to display their limitations, then the answer is no. There’s an uncertainty about this unit that is concerning. Things have to break the right way for them. Should they, it could be a strength of the defense. If not, the Steelers will lament they didn’t do more to bolster it when they had the chance.