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Merril Hoge was both right and wrong in his assessment of the Steelers ILB depth chart

Former Steelers running back Merril Hoge definitely didn't pull any punches when discussing the Steelers inside linebacker depth chart recently.

Cleveland Browns v Pittsburgh Steelers

The only thing any player can control on the football field is their own individual effort.

Actually, that statement holds true for any individual in any endeavor in life. Some individuals are simply more athletically or intellectually gifted than others. However, an individual's effort can be the great equalizer. Sometimes, the gap can be too great to overcome, completely. However, superior effort will oftentimes keep the matchups competitive.

Formulating this article brought back memories of Steelers outside linebackers competing head-to-head against Cincinnati Bengals Hall of Fame left tackle Anthony Munoz. Munoz was the best left tackle I ever saw play in person. I honestly can't remember him ever giving up a quarterback sack against the Steelers. Any Steelers defender had to work extremely hard just to scratch the stat sheet against Munoz, much less pressure the quarterback.

That was even true for Steelers legend Greg Lloyd, one of the most intense and hardworking players to ever wear the black and gold. Lloyd and Munoz had some epic battles going against each other, but Lloyd fully realized going into each matchup that he would have to be extremely crafty and determined to make a positive impact in the game. In spite of this knowledge, and unbelievable degree of difficulty, Lloyd never gave anything less than his all. That type of intensity isn't hard to recognize and identify.

Merril Hoge is a warrior from a bygone era. A time when the best players played more for the name on the front of their jerseys. It was more about honor and respect than money and brand. Even with that being said, players were desperate for that playoffs money. Times change, and values change right along with it. The NFL is big business, and there are fortunes to be made. Free agency destroyed many rivalries, both of the franchise and individual variety. Although values and viewpoints fluctuate, it can be extremely difficult for guys like Hoge, and individuals of a similar age, to change along with them.

Merril Hoge played fullback for the Pittsburgh Steelers for seven seasons in the late 80's and early 90's. He played with the aforementioned Lloyd, and arguably the greatest collection of linebacker talent in franchise history. He played with standouts like Rod Woodson and Carnell Lake also. He witnessed first hand what all-out effort, physicality, and intensity looked like on defense. Just like what he provided the Steelers on offense.

So you can kind of understand why Hoge was less than impressed with the Steelers atrocious run defense in 2021, and the all-around performance level of the inside linebackers, Devin Bush in particular. Hoge, in a radio interview last week, expressed how he has been less than impressed with Bush's performance thus far in his young career. He said Bush lacks instincts for the position, that the Steelers front office doesn't want to admit they made a mistake selecting him, and how the Steelers would be better off to cut bait and head in another direction.

Obviously, Hoge isn't the kind of guy you want to spar with, because he definitely doesn't know how to pull his punches.

Although I have the utmost respect for Hoge and his experienced opinions, I disagree ever so slightly that Bush is a lost cause. Unlike Hoge, I am not as concerned with Bush's instincts at the position, but I am concerned with his lack of intensity last season. Injuries, and corresponding rehabilitation, happen. That reality of the sport is undeniable and inevitable. However, to quote one of my favorite lines from the movie Scent of a Woman, "There is no prosthetic for an amputated spirit!"

You have it, or you don't.

There have been plenty of undersized, athletic inside linebackers who have enjoyed great success in the NFL. Some of the best inside backers in league history actually. Pro Bowlers like Mike Singletary, Sam Mills, Ray Lewis, Zach Thomas, plus plenty of others, were able to excel without ideal physical measurements. One vital trait shared by all the listed standouts was aggressiveness. They were downhill, attacking linebackers who arrived at the ball carrier with bad intentions. They went over, around, or through any blockers to reach their destination. Their intensity borderlined on obsession.

Honestly, can any Steelers fan claim they saw that level of commitment from Devin Bush last season? There was an apparent disconnect from the type of intensity we had witnessed from Bush pre-injury, almost a hesitation if you will. Only Bush truly knows why that is.

If Bush can rediscover his intensity, and the aggressiveness that comes along with it, then I see no reason that he can't rebound in a big way from his disappointing 2021 campaign. That's precisely where and why I disagree with Hoge's assessment. If Bush is unable to find the aforementioned intensity, he could be finished in the NFL. However, I am still willing to hold out hope he can rediscover his passion and love for the game. If he does, I have little doubt that his intensity and aggressiveness will return.

Hoge also proclaimed in the interview that career journeyman backup Robert Spillane, a hard-nosed overachiever with severe athletic limitations, is the best inside linebacker currently on the roster, apparently overlooking the newly acquired free agent Myles Jack, although he did state that Jack was an 'upgrade', presumably over Joe Schobert.

That being said, although I totally understand his heartfelt respect for Spillane's tenacity and effort, if Spillane is the Steelers’ best hope for success this season, then it's going to be a long season on defense once again.