It is tough to take many positives away from the Pittsburgh Steelers first five games. Sitting at 1-4 it seems as though there is nothing to watch for the rest of the season. However, while their record is 1-4, the defense has taken a step forward with the addition of Minkah Fitzpatrick, who assisted on an interception again on Sunday.
On top of that, their trade into the top ten for Devin Bush is starting to see its returns.
The start of the season was a whirlwind for Bush. Tom Brady and Russell Wilson are two of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, and both saw the rookie and looked to attack when they had the chance. Bush gave up a few receptions but consistently found the ball, with three fumble recoveries in his first three NFL games.
Bush had a sack, three tackles for loss, and a quarterback hit on top of nine tackles in a Monday Night Football win against the Cincinnati Bengals that was a career game to date. However, Sunday against Baltimore may have been an even more impressive performance and a landmark of things to come.
With Mark Barron leaving late in the second quarter due to a hamstring injury, the Steelers had to make a decision on who they would let call plays. Bush was drafted to fill the role but the tough start had the Steelers using Barron for the time being. Despite being hesitant to put that responsibility early into the season, the progression of Bush gave Mike Tomlin confidence to roll with the rookie in the role he has been intended to play.
Bush had an early neutral zone infraction that helped keep a drive a live. The very next play Bush made a stunning interception, stealing the ball from the intended receiver, Nick Boyle.
Against a complex offense that featured plenty of moving pieces and motion, Bush was able to keep the group in line. In the first half, Lamar Jackson and the Ravens rushing attack was able to rip off 4.2 yards per attempt.
In the second half, the Steelers mixed in more three linebacker looks as well as three safety looks. They mixed and matched with the Ravens personnel, which required a lot of communication. Kam Kelly and Cam Sutton played 10 snaps, and Tyler Matakevich played seven snaps as the team defended the power of Mark Ingram along with the speed of Jackson.
“Just throwing different looks at the quarterback is always tough on them,” said Fitzpatrick about all of the shuffling that aided a strong defensive second half.
“They study the film and they’re expecting to see what they see on film in the game. When you throw different looks on them, it makes them hold onto the ball longer. Which it did, and it allowed us to get to the quarterback.”
Bush was able to handle the shuffling of personnel, get the plays in on time, and get the defense set before the snap. It obviously worked as the 4.2 yards per rush went to 2.8 in the second half. The Ravens averaged just 3.7 yards per play after half time. To put that into perspective, New England leads the league this year allowing 4.1 yards per play. The defense has grown with Bush, and with Bush calling the plays, they were playing arguably their best of the season considering the opponent.
Yes, this is a moral victory in the City of Champions, but the growth of Bush has been reassuring and is going to have the Steelers competitive in games throughout the season, regardless of who is at quarterback.
Barron was beaten multiple times in coverage before a hamstring injury ended his day. Considering the team is 1-4 and Bush has already gotten his feet wet with play-calling it seems foolish to pull back on his responsibility now. With Vince Williams back in the mix, the team has a veteran who can help guide Bush, and as Barron comes back from his injury he can shuffle with Williams based on situation.
Whether the season ends with a magical run, or not, the improvement of the defense has been inspiring and the progression of players such as T.J. Watt, Devin Bush, and Minkah Fitzpatrick should keep fans tuning in for Sundays in 2019 and for years to come.