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How newly acquired Jon Bostic upgrades the Steelers defense

Some feel Jon Bostic is nothing more than a depth addition, but he is much more than that for the sagging Steelers defense.

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Los Angeles Rams Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

“Run to the ball!” an old defensive coordinator I once coached with used to scream during team pursuit drills. “And be in a bad mood when you get there!”

I have been thinking about this quote in the wake of the Steelers’ signing of linebacker Jon Bostic. The signing seems to have elicited mixed reviews from the BTSC faithful. Optimists see him as a thumper who will bring to Pittsburgh a physical presence and a much-needed penchant for stopping the run. Pessimists portray him as a journeyman who can’t stay healthy and who represents no more than a Dixie cup with which to bail the hull of the sinking Steeler D.

Perhaps it’s my nature, or the ringing of that old DC’s voice in my ear, but count me among the optimists.

To begin, I have all the respect in the world for Sean Spence for the way he battled back from a gruesome injury to forge a respectable NFL career. Spence was thrown into a near-impossible situation last season when the Steelers plucked him from his living room and asked him to replace the uber-talented Ryan Shazier. Spence, without a training camp to get his surgically-repaired body ready, just couldn’t do it. His inability to find seams to pursue the ball-carrier, and his lack of a burst to make impactful plays when he did, rendered him a liability on the field. Shame on the Steelers for putting him into a situation in which he was destined to fail, or for not having a replacement for Shazier who was more serviceable. The situation was untenable, and it cost the team a shot at the Super Bowl.

Enter Jon Bostic.

His career thus far suggests he is by no means Ryan Shazier. Few linebackers are. Shazier’s combination of speed, instincts and physicality are so rare that few can match them. If Bostic isn’t Ryan Shazier, then, what is he? After reviewing some film, one thing I can say with certainty is this: Jon Bostic runs to the football. He is explosive at the snap and he has a knack for diagnosing “clear” (open) vs. “cloudy” (closed) gaps and bursting through them. Bostic won’t be the cure for everything that ails this Steeler defense, but his presence at Heinz Field this past January would have limited the effectiveness of the Jaguars run game. He is an upgrade over Spence in every conceivable way.

Consider the following images of Spence and Bostic versus the run. In the frame below, taken from the divisional playoff game, Jacksonville is running a one-back inside zone play with Leonard Fournette (#27). Spence, who is circled, should be playing over the top of the combo block on LT Walton (#96) since the backside gaps are sealed.

Spence doesn’t press the hole fast enough, however, and is unable to beat the guard chipping to the 2nd level. You can see him hung up on the guard’s block below, unable to get separation. This is poor gap integrity, and the result is one of the many big plays Jacksonville made in the run game that day.

Now let’s look at Bostic versus the run. In the image below, you immediately notice how quickly he recognizes the pull of the near offensive tackle and steps with it. His reaction time is excellent, and his lateral step is sound as it mirrors the step of his read key.

Next, we see Bostic pursuing laterally and finding a seam. As you can see below, once the seam develops, he is through it in a hurry. Notice how, between frames two and three, Bostic has covered four yards downhill (from the 34 to the 30) while the pulling tackle and the running back have covered just two. What does that mean? It means our newly-signed linebacker is coming downhill in a hurry. You can see the force he brings to the point of impact by the way he plays right through a 300+ pound OT as though he were a high school kid.

The result, seen below, is a tackle for loss on 3rd and 1.

Some may be saying, “Okay, the guy plays downhill. So what? Isn’t that what Vince Williams does?” The answer is yes, that is what Vince Williams does. Except that Bostic is quicker to the ball and rangier than Williams. He’s every bit the hitter, too. Bostic’s highlight films are loaded with shots of him de-cleating opponents, including this famous hit on Teddy Bridgewater while the two were in college:

In today’s NFL, that hit might get you five-to-ten in a Turkish prison. But it gives you an idea of the aggression with which Bostic plays. Given the fact that stopping the run became a liability against physical teams like the Ravens and Jaguars once Shazier went down last season, pairing Bostic with Williams has plenty of merit. To reiterate: Jon Bostic runs to the football. And he appears to be in a bad mood when he gets there.

As far as defending the pass, Bostic has just one career interception. However, he doesn’t appear to be a liability against the pass. He is athletic enough to get down the seam with tight ends and to move with crossing routes. He’s just such a downhill player that pass defense seems foreign to his DNA. He seems exploitable on play-action concepts on early downs, which is something the coaching staff will have to work on with him. That said, I’d rather have a guy the coaches have to back off than a guy they have to get going. If teams resort to counters and play-actions because of your aggressiveness, you’ve already taken away the thing they intend to do best. There’s nothing more demoralizing than an opponent slamming the ball down your throat and not being able to stop them. That was the case late last year. With Bostic and VW paired together, I would be surprised to see it happen again.

Still, in passing situations, I would expect the Steelers to sub for either Bostic or VW or perhaps even both. L.J. Fort has shown some aptitude in coverage, and is a candidate for situational reps. More likely, the Steelers will draft an athletic inside backer with their first or second pick. Bostic’s addition alleviates the need for a rookie to be an every-down starter from day one. But, should the team go ILB early, he needs to be an immediate contributor in sub packages. Bostic and Williams cannot play every down together, and a more versatile addition to the linebacking corps remains necessary.

For those who question why I’m singing Bostic’s praises when he’s bounced around the league and can be had for a relative bargain in the Wild West free agency has become, consider the following:

In Chicago, he made a combined 131 tackles in 29 games his first two seasons in the league. That’s solid production from a young player, especially when you consider the Bears were breaking in a new coaching regime under Marc Trestmann and had just replaced their entire defensive staff. Bostic also played under two different linebacker coaches his first two seasons before an injury cost him his third year in the league. He was traded to New England in 2015, where he was trapped behind a trio of stud linebackers in Dont’a Hightower, Jerod Mayo and Jamie Collins. He lost another season to injury after being traded to Detroit, then rebounded with a solid 2017 in Indianapolis where he recorded a career-best 97 tackles.

What does that all mean? It means Bostic showed promise of becoming a solid pro linebacker his first two seasons but was hindered by an unstable coaching situation. After some frustrating trades and injuries, he once again played solid football last season despite playing behind a woeful Colts defensive front that consisted of Margus Hunt, Jonathan Hankins and Steeler cast-off Al Woods. Imagine trying to play linebacker behind that group. It’s tough to make tackles when the defensive front is being relocated into your lap every play.

In other words, Bostic has never been in a situation as favorable as the one he finds himself in here. The chance to play for a stable franchise that values assistant coaches and to have formidable interior linemen like Cameron Heyward, Javon Hargrave and Stephon Tuitt in front of him should be a boon to Bostic’s career.

News of the Morgan Burnett signing broke just as I was finishing this story. If I may opine on that for a second, let me say I think it is fantastic. He is a savvy veteran who understands coverages, can quarterback the secondary, and most importantly, can mentor Sean Davis and hopefully transform him into the disciplined football player he needs to become. The Steelers needed a smart, calming presence in the secondary more than a big hitter. Burnett checks all of those boxes, and we should celebrate his signing. Don’t sleep on Bostic, though. He will endear himself to fans of old-school Steeler football with his aggressive style and he may even surprise some by being more versatile than expected. With the draft yet to come, the organization has already taken some big steps towards building a championship-caliber defense. The steps of Jon Bostic running to the football should be music to our ears.