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Finding the right amount of playing time for Robert Spillane in the Steelers defense

Can the Steelers find the right balance in how they implement Spillane on defense?

Cincinnati Bengals v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/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. When it comes to Robert Spillane, too much of him on defense seems to be a problem, but not enough has a similar result. Can the Steelers find the right balance in how they implement Spillane on defense? 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 joining the Steelers in 2019, Robert Spillane has appeared in 34 games with 11 starts during the regular season. Only playing one defensive snap in 2019, his contributions can be better understood by looking at 2020 and 2021. Starting seven games in 2020 where he had an interception return for a touchdown, four passes defensed, a fumble recovery, 2.0 sacks, and 45 tackles, Spillane played 377 defensive stats in 12 games. In 2021 in 14 games with four starts, Spillane played 346 snaps where he had 56 tackles and no other statistics in the categories mentioned above.

Where things get interesting is when Geoffrey pointed out to me the results of Steelers regular season games based on Spillane’s usage. It appears that in 2021 the magic number of snaps played for Robert Spillane on defense was between 10 and 50. When Spillane played fewer than 10 snaps in a game where he was active, the Steelers were 0-3-1. During the three games Spillane did not play at all, the Steelers went to 2-1. When Spillane had those magic number of snaps between 10 and 50, The Steelers were 6-1 with their only loss being in Week 11 in Los Angeles against the Chargers. When Spillane played more than 50 snaps in a game, the Steelers were 1–2.

Based on the success the Steelers had with moderate usage of Robert Spillane, it appears the best results are when he is utilized in certain situations. So how does that work out for the Steelers? Let’s check the film.

The Film Line:

For the film we are going to look at the Steelers only win in which Robert Spillane played 50 or more snaps, their Week 17 win over the Cleveland Browns. Even if you are a superstitious person it is easy to see how Ben Roethlisberger’s final game at Heinz Field. . . actually the last game at Heinz Field period, would overwrite playing Robert Spillane too much.

The truth is I love to find crazy splits like that, and in this case there is a film to back up why you like having a player like Robert Spillane to rotate in, but you don’t want to have to rely on him to play the whole game. Let’s start by looking at Robert Spillane in run defense.

Steelers vs. Browns, 1st quarter, 7:57.

Robert Spillane (#41) is the linebacker just inside the hash marks, in the middle of the field.

This is a really good job by Spillane. Reads the play quickly, beats the puller to the spot and knocks a pulling guard backwards and out of the play. The problem is the rest of that side of the run defense got driven out of the play and the blockers were able to reach the other linebacker, Ulysees Gilbert III. This is a problem every inside linebacker the Steelers played faced in 2021. When the defensive line loses that badly, you aren’t winning the battle on your own. Fortunately, in Week 17, the defensive line didn’t lose that badly very often.

Steelers vs. Browns, 2nd quarter, 2:57.

Robert Spillane (#41) is the linebacker between the hash marks, farther to the top of the screen.

The defensive line does a better job here, and Spillane is able to work around the traffic to limit the running back to a short gain. Notice that T.J. Watt and Terrell Edmunds take on the two pullers and Spillane is able to run free to the ball. Spillane does a good job navigating the traffic and getting there, but without an unblocked path to the ball, this doesn’t happen.

Steelers vs. Browns, 3rd quarter, 1:37.

Robert Spillane (#41) is the linebacker just inside the end zone, the linebacker closer to the bottom of the screen.

Another play where his linebacking partner takes on the blocker and Spillane gets to the ball carrier, but this time I want you to look at both linebackers and their reaction to the play. Spillane reacts a good bit quicker than Ulysees Gilbert III here, and that’s a big reason why Robert Spillane is the #3 linebacker. He’s not the athlete other players are, but he reads the defense quickly and that’s very valuable for a linebacker.

Now let’s take a look at Spillane in coverage.

Steelers vs. Browns, 2nd quarter, 0:49.

Robert Spillane (#41) is the linebacker right next to the hash marks toward the top of the screen.

The Steelers are running a pattern-match style coverage on Spillane’s side of the field. You can see how the inside receiver of the trips bunch (#85) runs outside and is picked up by the cornerback. Spillane lets the first receiver going deep past him, a safety will be picking up that route, and Spillane picks up Jarvis Landry (#80) underneath. He does a good job executing the defense and finding the right player to cover here.

Now watch Baker Mayfield. After looking to his right, Mayfield progresses to the middle of the field, and is looking for Jarvis Landry. Spillane has the route covered so Mayfield starts to scramble, and that’s when T.J. Watt gets his ankles for one of his 5.5 sacks against the Browns in 2021.

Steelers vs. Browns, 4th quarter, 1:20.

Robert Spillane (#41) is the linebacker in the middle of the hash marks.

Here’s another example of Robert Spillane navigating coverage really well. He starts off covering David Njoku, and you can see Mayfield looking to that route early in the play. Then at the end of the play Minkah Fitzpatrick is covering Njoku and Spillane can briefly be seen running into the middle of the field. If you watch Donovan Peoples-Jones (WR to the top of the screen) you can see some of Mayfield’s chief targets on an extended play are going to be Njoku facing Spillane and then Peoples-Jones coming on a deep cross in the end zone. As Minkah Fitzpatrick picks up Njoku, Spillane drops into the middle to help take away that deep route and Mayfield throws a ball into traffic.

Steelers vs. Browns, 4th quarter, 15:00.

Robert Spillane (#41) is the linebacker in the middle of the hash marks.

Here Spillane is in straight up man coverage, and Austin Hooper shakes him with a pretty basic outside fake. This is one reason you don’t want Robert Spillane playing the whole game, because when coverage becomes an all-game matchup, receivers can set up fakes with previous routes, and Spillane doesn’t have the athleticism or anticipation to deal with receivers who can throw down moves on him to get open.

Steelers vs. Browns, 4th quarter, 5:42.

Robert Spillane (#41) is the linebacker in the middle of the hash marks.

Also when he’s in the game a long time, you start to see lapses like this. Spillane is better than this on almost every play he’s in coverage, but here he is just slow to react to the route entering his zone as he watches the quarterback’s eyes but doesn’t react to them. Terrell Edmunds isn’t a quick processing player either but look at his reaction to the play and Spillane’s. They reach the receiver at the same time despite Spillane being much closer. You can look through these clips and see much better reactions than this. But as the game goes on, you are more likely to see a play or two like this when Spillane is playing every snap.

The Point:

There are two points to be made about Robert Spillane based on the stats and the film. First, Spillane has value he brings at inside linebacker, both against the run and the pass. But with the value Spillane brings, there is a limit to what he can do before things break down. When calling on Spillane to be an every-down back, things broke down in his game during 2021. The trick with Robert Spillane in 2022 and his usage within the Steelers defense looks to come down to how much and in what situation he is used, assuming his play is similar to last season.