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.