When the Steelers traded up to land Michigan linebacker Devin Bush with the No. 10 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, the move created a mountain of expectations for the young defender.
Steelers faithful envisioned the speedy linebacker as a player that could lead the Black and Gold defense back to prominence, and finally fill the gap in the middle of the unit created by the tragic injury to Pro Bowler Ryan Shazier.
Through the very early portion of his Steelers career, Bush has been able to live up to those expectations. He’s been calling plays on defense since the very first practice of minicamp, and he’s impressed during individual drills in the Steelers’ training camp at St. Vincent College.
Hands down favorite part of camp… Backs on Backers. Rookie on Rookie, Devin Bush vs. Benny Snell. Bush with the win. pic.twitter.com/94Kizv8PxD
— Alan Branch (@AlanJeffery10) August 3, 2019
Last week, Bush faced his next big test as he made his on-field debut in the Steelers’ preseason opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Heinz Field on Friday night.
The results? Fairly impressive.
Bush led the Steelers with ten total tackles, seven of those unassisted. Simply judging by the box score, Bush appears ready to be a regular starter on Sundays. However, what does the film have to offer in regards to his performance?
A film study of Bush’s debut as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers:
HUSTLE, SPEED, RECOGNITION
Bush’s sideline-to-sideline speed was one of his heaviest touted traits entering the draft. On only the third snap of the game, fans at Heinz Field were able to take in Bush’s ability to make ground up quickly in person.
Bush, playing as the right inside linebacker, dropped into zone coverage and picks up the tight end crossing in front of him, just a little above the flat. As soon as Tampa quarterback Jameis Winston releases the ball, Bush immediately breaks for the ball (You’re able to see Bush on the bottom left of your screen making his way to the other side of the field before the receiver even catches the ball). After Peyton Barber makes two Steelers defenders miss, Bush is able to finish the play for a minimal gain.
While Bush’s speed is showcased here, what truly sticks out is the hustle. Some linebackers in the league, especially in the preseason, may have opted for the easy way out and not finished the play. Bush’s effort may have potentially stopped a bigger gain in a game where every yard counts.
Even when Bush doesn’t actually make the tackle, he always finds himself near the football.
This is textbook for how you want linebackers to read screen plays. With the defense in zone coverage, Bush sits in the middle of the field with a tight end in his area. Rather than over-pursue, Bush waits to see Winston’s arm go forward to attack. Bush’s speed finds himself in the vicinity of the play by the time the back turns his head. Bush is guided off-target by one of the pulling offensive linemen, but he still manages to dive and slow the back down for his two other teammates.
Perhaps the kryptonite of most middle linebackers, dropping into pass coverage is not the preferred method of defending by typically less athletic guys forced to take on tight ends, and sometimes receivers. If you follow the Steelers, linebackers in coverage was one of many problems the Steelers faced in 2018. Time after time, quarterbacks were able to float balls over linebackers, and right into the bread basket for a sizable gain.
With the selection of Bush, who possesses both the speed and athleticism to run with nearly anyone, many expect the Steelers trend of being exposed via middle backers in coverage to return to normal levels, if not nearly completely eliminated.
Although Bush put on quite the show, he acknowledged some faults in his debut when addressing the media afterwards: “I did decent. I did alright. … Some throws got behind me. That’s disappointing me a bit, so I got a lot to work on.”
The first of passes defended for Bush came in the first quarter of the game.
Bush, lined up as the left inside linebacker with the Steelers in their nickel package, and was assigned the middle of the field on this zone play. Mark Barron, the first defender to come across the tight end, passes him along to cover the hook/flat areas. With Barron opting to let the tight end run up the seam (as he should, if he expects Bush to be present), this creates a window for quarterback Blaine Gabbert to complete the throw. Bush initially flips his hips to the tight end, yet is caught with his feet square when the ball is released.
Rather than having his feet in position to make a play on the ball, the square feet force somewhat of a hesitation for Bush, who arrives just late to the party after the ball was complete. Had Bush kept his feet parallel to the tight end, he appeared to be in position to break on the ball to intercept it.
Should quarterbacks be able to continually drop dimes like the clip above, the Steelers may want to opt for a different coverage for Bush. Yet despite the completion, Bush’s coverage was not bad on this play. In fact, it was nearly textbook. Bush played the tight end to the outside then dipped underneath to force the quarterback to make a nearly perfect pass between him and the safety. Bush’s height may play a factor in how the Steelers choose to deploy him, as it may become apparent very quickly that Bush isn’t fit to play the trail technique.
Bush’s pass defense featured just as many good plays as bad, however. Here, playing in man coverage, Bush relies on his inside leverage and makes a phenomenal read to jump the route and nearly takes the pass for six points the other way.
While Bush may have seen some struggles in the passing game, there’s no doubt about his ability to stop the run. On the play below, Bush takes the proper angle while utilizing his closing speed to fill the open running lane and tackle the ball carrier for a loss. Since the loss of Shazier, the Steelers have yet to find a linebacker who could replicate the ability to fill gaps like that. Bush appears to be the solution to that problem.
Speaking of filling gaps, Bush did just that on the below fourth and short play. Playing as the sole middle linebacker, Bush found the first glimpse of daylight and attacked. The result? A turnover on downs.
The first week of preseason play tends to generate an overwhelming amount of overreactions. However, after stuffing the stat sheet and passing the eye test, Bush appears to be worth every future penny the Steelers paid when they traded up to snag him. Bush, like every other rookie to step foot on an NFL field, is raw. There are facets of his game that he will need to improve on in order to become the perennial Pro Bowl player many in Pittsburgh expect him to be. His footwork needs improvement in coverage, he hasn’t presented himself as a viable pass rusher, and at times he struggles to fight off blocks from bigger players.
Yet in a game where teams stick to vanilla personnel and play-calling, Bush managed to leave his mark on a game that will only continue to add to his hype train. Take everything (especially in these exhibition games) with a grain of salt. With that being said, it’s nearly impossible to walk away from the first game unimpressed with Bush’s performance.
With Conner, Snell Each over 100 Yards, Running Game Crucial to Steelers 2-0 Start
The Steelers have charged out to a 2-0 start to the season thanks to the stellar defense and the return of star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, which has elevated an already talented group of receivers that also added Chase Claypool and Eric Ebron to the mix this offseason.
At least, that’s how the narrative has gone so far. And with good reason. The Steelers do have a stellar defense, and Roethlisberger has been a spark, with five touchdowns in two games and a completion percentage (68.5) and passer rating (107.1) that would both be career highs.
But the Steelers have also done a surprisingly strong job of running the football. Through two weeks, there have only been 10 running backs to rush for over 100 yards, and the Steelers have two, with Benny Snell clearing the century mark against the New York Giants and James Conner returning from injury to do so against the Denver Broncos.
They’re the only team with a 100-yard rusher in each of their first two games and have increased their percentage of run plays from 33% in 2018 to 42% this season. Roethlisberger said part of that is that the Steelers have been operating with a lead in the second half and looking to run some clock by running the ball.
“Yeah, I think it’s just the way the games have played out,” Roethlisberger said. “We don’t go into any game saying, OK, here’s our percentage of run/pass. We go into the game trying to win it. I’ve just been happy at the end of games, we’ve been able to utilize the four-minute offense both games. I think that’s something that we take pride in. Because when we say we have to run the ball, it doesn’t mean we have to run it more. We have to run it more effectively. And running it in the four-minute offense is effective running.”
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin also highlighted the success of the four-minute offense as the Steelers ran out the clock with the football in both victories.
“We have been able to close games out via the run,” he said. “We have been able to possess the ball in four-minute offense. We’ve had a lead in the latter part of the game and have been able to close the game out and maintain possession of the ball primarily via the run. I like that aspect of it. We are still working and growing in terms of being able to do all the things that we want to do, not only in that area of the game, but in all areas of the game. But I think it is a good start when you have your four-minute offense rolling and you are able to possess the ball via the run and preserve a lead at the end of a football game.”
Of course, there are many mouths to feed when it comes to the Steelers offense. Roethlisberger’s number of quality targets in the passing game, plus what looks like it could be a two-headed backfield between Conner and Snell is a lot of talent to go around and there’s only one football.
Roethlisberger said striking a balance is easy, though, at least when the team is 2-0.
“You look at the win loss column,” he said. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who’s getting the ball. It doesn’t matter how many times we’re running or throwing it, it doesn’t matter who’s getting their stats, it’s just a matter of if the team is getting that one stat that’s most important. And that’s a win.”
Film Study: Conservative Game Plan Holds Steelers Back
The Steelers squeaked out a victory from the jaws of defeat on Sunday by defeating the Denver Broncos 26-21. It was a hard-fought battle as the Steelers allowed the Broncos to creep back into the game in the second half. Turnovers and penalties were two big reasons as to why the Steelers kept them in the game. However, the conservative offensive play calling was as well. Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner has received due criticism before. Today, that criticism was once again well deserved.
Fichtner’s Questionable Calls Shackles Ben Roethlisberger
The biggest problem with Fichtner was his conservative play-calling once the Steelers got into unfavorable second down positions. On 2nd and long, the Steelers should be using the playmaking ability and arm of Ben Roethlisberger and the skillsets of their weapons to help get into manageable third-down situations.
On a 2nd and 18, these draw plays should not be in contention. One was in the very first quarter when the Steelers should be gunning for a quick start, not a first possession punt. It was after a fumble, but all Fichtner should be doing is trying to get the offense back on track. A run on second and long does not accomplish that. Then, with a two-score lead, this is a classic example of a team taking the foot off the gas pedal. Living in fear of turnover at this point is not a valid point to the contrary, especially when the passing game had been working especially well in the first half against a battered Broncos secondary. More potently, this is playing right into the Broncos strengths. Their front line, even without Von Miller, is strong and capable. It made no sense to go with a draw here on 2nd and long. Even attacking the Broncos underneath here would have worked to some degree. Anything is better than a run at this point.
On the ensuing play, the point is driven home. The Broncos have sold out for the deep pass at the sticks and all that is left is a dig at the line of scrimmage. As a result, the Steelers end up punting here. There was no guarantee that the Steelers would have scored points even if they did take the air. However, shackling Roethlisberger when he has shown the capability to beat the Broncos secondary with ease is a questionable call. If the Steelers do convert and end up scoring a touchdown or even a field goal, the entire outlook on the game is changed. Analytics have shown aggressiveness is how teams have the best probability to win games. In situations like this, that should be followed.
The Steelers’ screen game was perhaps the worst part of the game today. There was nothing going for them all day and yet Fichtner continued to call them. The screen game is nothing more than an extension of the running game. It, yet again, is something that puts Roethlisberger’s best strengths in a bind and handicaps drives. There were promising drives that showcased the quick passing game as a way to slice through the Broncos defense with ease. Even more so, Chase Claypool’s big play made it known that it was possible to push the ball down the field.
This screen play may highlight the worst of the day for the Steelers. The pre-snap look they get is just not favorable for this play. They are outmanned three to two in a blocking situation. More importantly, the Broncos are playing with even spacing and have a great angle to the boundary to make this play on JuJu Smith-Schuster. They are expecting a quick pass here and the safety at the top of the formation is ready to drive down if he sees any quick passing game concepts. That is exactly what happens and the Steelers are stopped short on a critical 3rd and 2. It is questionable why they did not check out of this anyways, but given the struggles of the screen game all day, Fichtner’s call of a screen in a pivotal point is puzzling.
Fichtner has to learn to let Roethlisberger cook and use his arm talent. The quick passing game is more than fine. Honestly, screens are not all bad, but they should not be calling as many as they did today when they were not working. If they are to be called, there has to be more pre-snap action to mess with the defense’s eyes. It was that conservative play-calling that lulled the Steelers offense and in part gave the Broncos a window to creep back into the game as a whole.
Steelers Rookie Kevin Dotson is Ready to Step Up in a Big Way
The Steelers will be throwing their rookie guard into the fire on Sunday. With injuries to both David DeCastro and Stefen Wisniewski, the Steelers are being forced to throw fourth-round rookie Kevin Dotson into the starting lineup. While his college tape looks good, and Steelers Now concluded he could have starting upside, this is early for him to be starting. Dotson missed a good portion of training camp with a knee injury. Not only that but with such limited time, is he really ready to play this early? The few reps he got versus the Giants may be able to tell the story.
There were two key plays that showed Dotson might just be ready right out of the gate here, even despite the “angst” that Mike Tomlin and Randy Fichtner have described at starting Dotson this week.
The first play was this rep against Dexter Lawrence. Now, Lawrence is an explosive athlete. Converting speed-to-power is something he does really well. With powerful hands to jolt pass protectors as well, he can be a real problem, especially for a young guy like Dotson. However, while Dotson initially gets hit slightly back, he does a great job of engaging his core strength and anchoring down. It is obvious how strong Dotson is on the football field, but it is not just in his arms. It is his legs and core that allows him great body control to stand his ground. Other than his dependable anchor on this play, Dotson has fantastic hand placement. His hands are placed inside of Lawrence’s shoulder pads and he is able to control the point of attack here as a result. It was all through winning the leverage of the rep where Dotson was able to get those hands under Lawerence’s pads. A true people-mover it is no surprise to see Dotson play with excellent leverage.
This is a fantastic pull by Dotson on this play to spring Benny Snell. He shows off some hip stiffness, but overall moves pretty well to reach the end here and seal it off. Dotson is the very definition of mauler that plays with violence and power. The end gets shocked by Dotson’s pull and can not get free of his grasps in time to make a play on Snell. This is textbook teach tape for pulls, and while it is not flashy, it is good stuff from Dotson.
Back in training camp after he had just come back and was facing some first team competition, Dotson made sure to let it known he was up to the task.
“I feel like I can make an impact no matter what happens,” Dotson said.
Now with a flurry of injuries, it will up to Dotson to handle Jurrell Casey against the Broncos as the Steelers try to improve to 2-0. If the limited tape says anything, Dotson might just be up to that task.