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Does Robert Spillane warrant a return to the Steelers in 2023?

After four years in Pittsburgh, should Spillane be in the long-term plans at inside linebacker?

New York Jets v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2023 offseason is underway. As the team looks at it’s potentially departing players due to impending free agency, some players may be returning while others will test the market. To get a better idea as to how the Steelers might be looking, we’re going to dive into several of the free agents starting with ones who played the most in 2022. Next up will be Robert Spillane. 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:

In his fourth season with the Steelers, Robert Spillane had his most games in which he appeared with 16 and also had a career high in tackles with 79. Starting five games, Spillane had four tackles for loss, 1.0 sacks, and four passes defensed.

When it comes to advanced statistics provided by Pro Football Reference, Spillane was targeted in coverage more than he was in any other season in his career. With 43 targets and 36 completions, Spillane gave up an 83.7% completion percentage for 359 yards and was credited with one touchdown surrendered. Spillane was also credited with five missed tackles with a 6.0% missed tackle percentage.

One particular item of note is that in Spillane‘s five starts the season he played 100% of the defensive snaps. Spillane‘s first start came in Week 10 against the New Orleans Saints when Myles Jack was active but held out of the game due to recovering from injury. Spillane‘s other four starts came in the Steelers final four games of the season. In case you haven’t figured it out, the Steelers were 5–0 when Spillane started and played 100% of the defensive snaps. Additionally, the most points the Stelers surrendered in any game in which Spillane played every snap was 16 against the Carolina Panthers in Week 15.

So there are the numbers. Now it’s time to get on to what everyone’s actually here for. Let’s check the film.

The Film Line:

Robert Spillane earned a bigger role as the season progressed and the other linebackers struggled with injuries and poor play. He earned that chance by being a player that was in the right place playing smart football, even if he is a limited athlete.

Steelers vs. Bills, 2nd quarter, 1:15

Robert Spillane (#41) is the linebacker in coverage.

The Bills put tight end Quentin Morris out wide, and the Steelers leave Robert Spillane on him in man coverage. Spillane’s limited athleticism is easy to see here, but you also see an almost comedic example of him being in the right place despite his limitations.

He would put a better coverage rep on film on the next drive.

Steelers vs. Bills, 2nd quarter, 0:15

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

Good positioning by Spillane puts him in position to make a play on this pass. He can’t haul it in, but he does get a pass defended for breaking it up. It’s a theme all across Robert Spillane’s film, his technique and positioning are good, and as long as his athletic limitations don’t lose the play for him, he’s solid.

Steelers vs. Buccaneers, 3rd quarter, 10:01

Robert Spillane (#41) is on the line of scrimmage, second from the bottom of the screen.

This is Brian Flores’ influence. It showed up a good amount after T.J. Watt’s injury. This Cover-1 blitz with everyone but the corners and free safety on the line of scrimmage is a staple of Flores’ defenses. It changes the job for linebackers as they are tight to their man and need to have more cover technique in engaging the release and turning to run with the route. Robert Spillane does well here, slowing the receiver inside the 5-yard zone, then does a good job breaking up the pass from a trail technique coverage.

Steelers vs. Eagles, 1st quarter, 9:31

Robert Spillane (#41) is the linebacker on the hash marks to the bottom of the screen.

This is the Steelers version of a green-dog blitz. Robert Spillane starts the play approaching the line, ready to defend a run play. When his man doesn’t get the ball Spillane will either cover the back or add to the rush if his man is blocking. This is one of Spillane’s best roles, as he does a great job transitioning quickly to cover or rush. Spillane posted a 17.6% pressure rate on his blitzes and recorded a sack, He did well enough as a rusher and in coverage.

Steelers vs. Bucaneers, 4th quarter, 4:45

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

This is where Spillane is probably the weakest. Spillane’s speed to the outside isn’t good enough, and he isn’t a good enough tackler to make up for the poor angle his athletic limitations force on him. The majority of Spillane’s missed tackles come on plays like this.

Steelers vs. Raiders, 2nd quarter, 11:10

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

When the play isn’t getting away from him, Spillane shows good positioning, not over pursuing and reading gaps well. Spillane is a solid tackler on these plays as well.

Steelers vs. Panthers, 1st quarter, 14:25

Robert Spillane (#41) is the linebacker that shifts into the middle.

The Steelers react to the jet motion and Robert Spillane comes up to attack the “A” gap. While he reacts quickly and gives good effort, Spillane isn’t a match for the center and is moved out of the run lane. The adjustment works, as the Panthers can’t get a body on Terrell Edmunds and Edmunds makes the tackle. Robert Spillane may be a solid run defender on inside runs, but he’s no Vince Williams— he isn’t going to light up lineman and blow up plays like Williams did.

Steelers vs. Ravens, 2nd quarter, 15:00

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

You can see Spillane isn’t the fastest linebacker, and he is a bit slow to find the ball on this play, but you can also see him get off a block and get to the ball once he does see the play.

The Point:

Robert Spillane has given the Steelers a reliable but not flashy linebacker and he’s also a fantastic special teams player. He has clear limitations that make him an unattractive option as a full-time starter, but he is just about perfect as a backup linebacker. Backup linebackers need to be special teams players, and Spillane is a stand out there. Spillane also has the number one trait you want in a backup linebacker, and that is reliably executing your assignment correctly. If your backup loses matchups you can survive, but a backup who is in the wrong place starts to unravel the defense around him.

Robert Spillane is a valuable player, but in a season that has the Steelers looking for at least one, and quite possibly two new starters at the position, Spillane might be too expensive for a backup linebacker. If he isn’t I expect he’ll be back in the black & gold in 2023.