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Can Devin Bush get back to his pre-injury form?

After starting his career strong, the ACL injury Bush suffered in 2020 still affected his play throughout 2021.

NFL: JAN 16 AFC Wild Card - Steelers at Chiefs Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers are chugging on through the 2022 offseason. Looking at a number of players and positions as the roster has fluctuated, sometimes it’s players the Steelers have on their roster taking a step that can really add to the coming season. Looking at inside linebacker, can Devin Bush get back to his pre-injury form? This is the subject for this week’s Steelers Vertex.

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:

Since we are focusing on comparing Devin Bush before his injury to afterwards, I’ll break the numbers down in that manner. In Bush‘s first two seasons, he appeared in 21 games with 20 starts where he had two interceptions, seven passes defensed, one forced fumble, and four fumble recoveries with one being for a touchdown. Bush had 2.0 sacks and 135 tackles through the first 21 games of his career. He also had nine tackles for loss as well as four quarterback hits.

In 2021, Bush appeared in 14 games, starting all of them. Coming back strong in his first week against the Buffalo Bills, Bush had 10 tackles and a forced fumble. But after missing Week 2, Bush never got back to the same numbers again. On the season, he finished with 70 tackles and 2.0 sacks with four passes defensed, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. Bush only had two tackles for loss of the season but did have four quarterback hits.

Playing every snap of the 2020 season before he was injured, Bush saw his playing time greatly reduced in 2021. Only two times on the season did Bush play 90% of the snaps in a game which was in Week 4 at the Green Bay Packers (90%) and Week 10 against the Detroit Lions (96%).

So while there was a difference in the numbers with Devin Bush, was it that obvious in his play on the field? You know it’s coming… It’s time to check the film.

The Film Line:

Devin Bush struggled a lot in 2021, but I don’t want to talk about how bad he was after he missed Week 2, I want to look at later in the season when he was playing better and compare that to his film from 2019 and 2020. Because the important question isn’t how bad was Devin Bush in 2021. The important question is what could we see from Bush in 2022.

Let’s start by looking at Devin Bush before his 2020 season ending injury.

As a rookie Devin Bush was a play maker, he was all over the field tackling everything. A year after free safety Sean Davis led the team in tackles Devin Bush recorded 109 tackles as a rookie and free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick ranked tenth on the team in tackles. Devin Bush brought instant impact at linebacker, and the film of his run defense shows why.

2019 Steelers vs. Bills, 1st quarter, 7:03.

Devin Bush (#55) is the linebacker on the hash marks to the right side of the screen.

Bush is sidestepping and keeping up with the running back, effortlessly mirroring the run to meet the back in his run lane and make the play. Bush wasn’t the greatest tackler in the world, missing 11% of his tackle attempts. But he was always there, always slowing the play, making the runner deal with him, and with the Steelers #2 tackler Terrell Edmunds (2nd in tackles with 105) frequently right behind him, his misses usually ended up getting tackled anyway.

2019 Steelers @ Ravens, 1st quarter, 11:29.

Devin Bush (#55) is the linebacker in the middle of the screen.

Devin Bush had weaknesses, a main one was his size making it hard for his to take on blockers. Here he is effectively blocked but is able to get off the block to make the tackle. Bush wasn’t going to take on offensive lineman or blocking tight ends and blow them up like Vince Williams. Players Bush couldn’t avoid with his quickness could move him, but he did show ability to shed blocks laterally.

In 2020 Devin Bush was used differently. The Steelers used him as a major component in coverage, and were incredibly aggressive in front of him. The Steelers recorded 20 sacks in the first four games of 2020, Vince Williams led the NFL in tackles for a loss with 9, T.J. Watt was second with 8 and Mike Hilton was tied for 4th with 5 tackles for a loss.

Together Hilton and Williams had 5 sacks and 14 tackles for a loss over the first four games of 2020. They would combine for 1 sacks and 8 tackles for a loss the entire rest of the season.

Losing Devin Bush meant they couldn’t be as aggressive and had to cover more. Bush’s excellent coverage shows up on film constantly in those few games.

2020 Steelers vs. Texans, 2nd quarter, 4:23.

Devin Bush is the linebacker on the hashmarks to the bottom of the screen.

Bush absolutely locks down the Texans tight end, reads his eyes, and knocks the ball away. You can see the Steelers sending 5 players at the quarterback, the ball coming out 2 seconds after the snap, and no one is open.

2020 Steelers vs. Texans, 2nd quarter, 4:23.

Devin Bush (#55) is the linebacker on the hash marks to the bottom of the screen.

Bush’s man on this play stays in to block, so he’s free to try and make a play here. He helps cover the tight end then peels off to disrupt Deshaun Watson’s ability to throw the ball. The play ends with a sack.

The Texans know that the slot heading inside means Hilton is coming, the Steelers weren’t really trying to hide that at this point, they just let Hilton go do his thing. They also know that means Edmunds is going to be covering that TE from a deeper alignment. It was a great time to gain a few cheap yards and maybe more with a broken tackle. If you watch Watson on the play you can see how Bush disrupts this entire play, especially with how quickly he goes from covering to pressuring the quarterback.

Not hard to see Bush was a decisive, but mostly a quick and fast linebacker whose chief skillset was how effortlessly he covered ground and how well he could run with receivers.

2021 Steelers vs. Vikings, 1st quarter, 4:50.

Devin Bush (#55) is the linebacker near the hash marks to the left side of the screen.

That’s not the same Devin Bush. His first step is noticeably slower, making him appear much less decisive. It’s one thing to read the play and know where to go, it’s another to get there. Devin Bush was always good at seeing the play, but he was elite in his ability to get to where he needed to be.

Not last season though. Also notice the block hits him angled toward Bush. If he’s even a step farther that block is flatter and Bush can get off the block laterally to chase the play at a better angle. If he’s two steps faster, he’s past the block and cutting off the runner. That’s his burst and quickness not being what it was. After that you see he can’t run down the play like he used to, and has to take a longer angle to get to the back.

2021 Steelers vs. Vikings, 1st quarter, 1:13.

Devin Bush (#55) is the linebacker between the hash marks in the middle of the screen.

Devin Bush can still read the play, he can find the right spot to go to, and he’s still a good, not great, tackler. Just like in 2019 and 2020 he needs to be kept clean of lineman, but when he was, he was still a solid to good linebacker even without his speed.

2021 Steelers vs. Vikings, 3rd quarter, 2:11.

Devin Bush (#55) is the linebacker in the middle of the screen.

Bush still has the same instincts in coverage, and that’s enough to get just enough of this ball to alter the trajectory. The ball bounces off the receiver’s hands and Ahkello Witherspoon comes away with the interception. But you can also see that even as Devin Bush was playing better towards the end of the season, he didn’t have the elite quickness or speed that made him great.

The Point:

It is common for injuries like Bush’s to affect a player in their first season back, and then less in the following years. But there is enough concern seeing him play with such a drop from the elite mobility he had to warrant the Steelers going out and signing Myles Jack who brings a very similar skillset to Devin Bush pre-injury. News coming out of practices that Devin Bush is working on playing Buck linebacker may also be a sign that his mobility may not fully return and he is trying to adapt his game to survive in the NFL. Then again, a player is classified as being a Buck linebacker based on their alignment, so there is the chance the Steelers may be doing things different when it comes to the responsibilities of each linebacker position this season. Regardless of where he lines up, Devin Bush needs to regain his decisiveness along with his speed to be the player Steelers fans saw in 2019 and 2020.