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Highlights from Steelers Practice 8/24/20

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Eric Ebron said earlier in training camp that he hadn’t hit the blocking sled in his other stops in the NFL. Recently signed rookie Kyle Markway looked like it had been even longer for him.

Under the watchful eye of head coach Mike Tomlin and tight ends coach James Daniel on Monday, the Steelers tight ends battled with the blocking sled, as is customary for that unit during individual periods — at least in Pittsburgh.

Despite professing his lack of recent experience, Ebron looked just fine, driving the sled backwards twice. Markway, in his first go at it in black and gold, struggled in his first rep, but improved later after some instruction from Tomlin and an example of technique from starter Vance McDonald.

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Steelers

Steelers Have Faith in Robert Spillane at ILB with Devin Bush Out

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When Devin Bush went down with an injury in the Steelers’ win over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, second-year man Robert Spillane got the call to replace the Steelers stellar inside linebacker.

Later on Sunday, when it was revealed that Bush suffered an ACL injury that will require surgery and for him to miss the entire 2020 season, that fill-in job got a whole lot bigger.

For now, it appears that Spillane will remain the next man up, in head coach Mike Tomlin’s parlance, and he acquitted himself nicely against the Browns, leading the Steelers in tackles the rest of the way and making several big hits.

Spillane also donned the green-dotted helmet that signifies the member of the defense that is in radio communication with the Steelers sideline and took the responsibility of relaying the calls to the rest of the team.

That’s a group that includes a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in T.J. Watt, a three-time All Pro in Cam Heyward and an eight-year veteran in Vince Williams right beside him at inside linebacker.

Spillane, on the other hand, hardly has a resume that merits mention. He went undrafted out of Western Michigan, didn’t get invited to the combine, won a roster spot with the Tennessee Titans as a tryout and played a total of 20 special teams snaps in his rookie season. He was cut mid-year and didn’t catch on anywhere else until the Steelers offered him a futures contract.

In 2019, he started on the practice squad, was cut from it for two weeks, then came back to the team and was promoted to the active roster, playing in eight more games and becoming a special teams regular while owning a grand total of one defensive snap.

That made his ability on the field something of a surprise to many, though not Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin.

“Guys that make plays in special teams, that’s usually a precursor to them making plays in defense,” Tomlin said on Sunday. “Since we brought him up the middle of last year he’s been a consistent performer for us. I don’t think any of us are surprised from quality play from him.”

On the field, Spillane’s older, more experienced and more accomplished teammates had no problem letting him make the calls while doing everything they could to make the 24-year-old playing the most important game of his life as comfortable as he could be.

“As soon as I stepped on the field, I felt like my teammates trusted me,” Spillane said. “They’ve respected the work that I’ve put in through the past two years. They told me, ‘Rob, you belong out here. This is what you’re meant to do. So go out here and show everybody what we know you can do’ and that felt really good to hear from them.”

It’s not clear how much Spillane will play going forward with Bush out long term. They have other internal options in second-year former draft pick Ulysees Gilbert III and converted safety Marcus Allen. They will also certainly look outside the organization, as they did a year ago when they lost Sean Davis to injury and traded for Minkah Fitzpatrick.

But for now, Spillane is the next man up, and unless he proves otherwise, he’s enjoying the team’s confidence in his abilities.

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Steelers

Steelers, Titans Set for 8th Game in NFL History Between 5-0 or Better Unbeaten Teams

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The Steelers and Tennessee Titans will meet as a battle of unbeaten teams on Sunday, with both squads owning 5-0 records coming into the game at Nissan Stadium in Nashville.

It’s just the eighth time in NFL history that unbeaten teams with five or more wins will meet one another on the field, according to the Steelers public relations department. It will be the first time the Steelers are involved in such a game.

“We’ve got a significant challenge in the form of the Tennessee Titans coming up this week,” head coach Mike Tomlin said after the Steelers dominated the Cleveland Browns on Sunday to improve to 5-0. “That’s life in this game. We’re appreciative and more importantly we’re really excited. You can’t take anything for granted in this environment.”

The last time it happened was in 2015, when the 6-0 Denver Broncos faced the 6-0 Green Bay Packers. There have been five instances in the past 20 years, but there was just one from 1925 to 2005.

The last (and only) time the Steelers were 5-0 came in 1978, when they won their first seven games to start the season. That year, they faced the 2-3 New York Jets while 5-0, the 2-4 Atlanta Falcons while 6-0 and lost to the 4-3 Browns after going 7-0.

Here’s the full list of game between 5-0 or better unbeaten foes in NFL history:

2015 6-0 Denver Broncos 29, 6-0 Green Bay Packers 10
2007 8-0 New England Patriots 24, 7-0 Indianapolis Colts 20
2007 5-0 New England Patriots 48, 5-0 Dallas Cowboys 27
2004 5-0 New England Patriots 13, 5-0 New York Jets 7
1973 6-0 Minnesota Vikings 10, 6-0 Los Angeles Rams 9
1923 5-0 Canton Bulldogs 7, 5-0 Chicago Cardinals 0
1921 7-0 Akron Pros 0, Buffalo All-Americans 0

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Film Study

Film Study: Robert Spillane Impressive Filling in for Devin Bush

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Devin Bush is done for the season.

In a tough blow for the Steelers defense, the Steelers will be without their speedy, athletic linebacker until 2021, assuming multiple media reports that Bush will require ACL surgery after his injury in the Steelers’ rout of the Cleveland Browns on Sunday.

As such, it leaves a huge void for the Steelers, who did not address the linebacker position in the 2020 NFL Draft or free agency.

The man that stepped in for Bush was for undrafted free agent Robert Spillane out of Western Michigan. Stylistically, there is nothing similar between the two. Spillane is an outstanding special teamer, but could he make the leap to the defense?

Robert Spillane Solid on Sunday

Spillane came into the game late in the second quarter, so there is an entire half of tape out there on him now. With five tackles and one of those for a loss, it was a decent game for Spillane filling for Bush. In fact, the Steelers’ defense seemingly did not miss a beat with Spillane instead of Bush, as they blanked the Browns in the second half.

Overall, this is a nice play by Spillane. While Kareem Hunt does end up wrestling forward ever so slightly for the first down, Spillane showcases three qualities that make this play encouraging. For one, he recognizes the screen and is in a great position to help at the second level as a result. Processing through his keys to see that is the first step for any linebacker wanting to get onto an NFL field. Second, he takes a direct angle to Hunt. Even with Spillane’s only modest speed, this angle is more than good enough to cut off Hunt’s lane. Lastly, Spillane does a nice job of breaking down and bringing the hammer down on Hunt. While the Browns do get the first down, it only ends up being a five-yard gain, and Hunt is no easy player to bring down in the open field.

This is Spillane’s best play of the day. If fans know nothing else about Spillane coming out of this game, it is that Spillane loves to hit. He had a few shots where he just laid the wood on guys. Austin Hooper was the benefactor of two of those unfortunate big shots. What is more impressive about this play is how Spillane sees right through the misdirection. The Browns are running a play-action off of outside zone concepts while Hooper sneaks around as the H-Back. This could easily be a split zone run heading the other way. Either way, Spillane key reads Hooper, scrapes back over the defensive line, and pastes Hooper right as he catches it. That is a high football IQ play.

Avoiding blocks and shedding them was something that Spillane was good at for most of the game, but this is one block that he has to avoid. The lineman just chop blocks Spillane and takes him out. Whether he has to sidestep the lineman or dip to avoid the block and make the tackle, a downhill linebacker like Spillane hopefully makes this play more often than not. Credit where credit is due, this is a nice block by JC Tretter, but Spillane needs to avoid the trash and chop blocks. Spillane keeps his head up and shoulders square to the line of scrimmage, just like they are taught. However, the saying to avoid cut blocks for linebackers in space is to “give ground to gain ground” by taking a few steps back to avoid the cut block. If Spillane follows that, he can avoid the block and make the tackle on Hooper comfortably in the open field.

Spillane puts on a master class on how to defeat a reach block at the second level here. He stuns the lineman with a strong punch to the chest, but extends out fully to keep himself clean. That gives him the ability to shed this block at any time when he wants to. He rips down to shed the block and successfully executes a stack and shed. Then, he makes the tackle at the second level. Taking on blocks at the second level is huge for any linebacker nowadays, and this was a great, strong run fit.

There is zero doubt that Spillane’s first snaps are encouraging. From this perspective, it is clear he knows what he is seeing and that he works downhill more than fine. Despite not being the greatest athlete, Spillane’s hot motor can make up for that shortcoming at times. However, everything was mostly under him and he did not get tested that much in coverage, especially up the seam. While it was a good first impression for Spillane, his coverage ability will be a question mark that has to be answered in the coming weeks.

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