PITTSBURGH — Devin Bush’s level of play has been one of the biggest storylines the Steelers in their offseason leading to the 2022 season. After looking like a strong, young linebacker in his rookie season and first games of 2020, Bush tore his ACL and missed the rest of the season before coming back in 2021.
But when he returned, Bush didn’t look like the same player. He often looked lost on the field, and even got pulled from being an every-down linebacker for the team. He was selected to be the team’s ace linebacker when the Steelers traded up to the tenth overall pick of the 2019 NFL Draft.
Now, Bush looks to prove he can be the player he was drafted to be while playing alongside his new teammate in linebacker Myles Jack. And this time, the fourth-year linebacker out of Michigan feels he’s in a different place.
“Early on I wasn’t happy with my play and I wasn’t happy with losing,” Bush said Wednesday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex after Steelers OTAs. “I went through some things, personally. It was all a learning process.”
A huge part of Bush’s issues stemmed from the rehabilitation of his knee not being complete. While he was healthy enough to be on the field, he wasn’t able to be the same player who depended on his explosiveness and quick change of direction to cover ground and be the rangy linebacker the Steelers sought in the draft.
“After the season I was able to run miles on the beach,” Bush said. “I was cutting, planting, jumping, turning around and my knee wasn’t an issue. I was able to get back to that, do normal things and get my confidence back in myself and my knee. That was a big part of my rehab, and honestly it came after the season.”
Now, Bush feels he’s able to do a lot more during OTAs and workouts than he did this time last year.
“Last year, I was cleared but I wasn’t able to do this around camp last year,” Bush recalled. “I remember I was still learning how to land from my offseason training. I was jumping off boxes and learning how to land. Now, I’m able to go out and do things early. I’m not catching up anymore.”
“I’m just able to go out on the field and put my cleats on whenever I felt like it,” Bush continued. “Last year, (around) this time, I wasn’t on the field as much. They were managing me reps and holding me back to be cautionary.”
Cautionary was also how Bush looked like he played most of the 2021 season. He wasn’t the same linebacker who set a Steelers rookie record with 109 combined tackles in 2019.
“Before the injury I felt like I was doing well,” Bush said. “I think I was on the way to being All-Pro or Pro Bowl, but things happen. I’ve learned a lot along the way. I’m grateful for it and I’m thankful I get to go out and play again.”
The Steelers don’t need a cautionary Bush; they need the aggressive leader they thought the were getting when they drafted him. Bush is right that he was on the right trajectory before his injury. Now it’s just a matter of getting back to that kind of progress.
“I get a chance to play football the way I want to,” Bush said about not knowing about his contract situation. “I get the chance to go out there and be myself. I feel like I’m starting a whole new slate. … I don’t think I’ve got anything to prove. I’m a first rounder and a top ten pick. That’s never going to change. I don’t think I have to prove anything to anybody. I just have to go out there and play football. My mentality is about being a football player again.”
It would’ve behooved Bush if he would’ve been physically able to play the type of football he likes last season. His 70 tackles over 14 starts and lack of consistency during his third year in the NFL led to the Steelers not giving his fifth-year extension. That means his contract expires after this season.
But that doesn’t seem to distract Bush too much from his goal of playing winning football this year.
“Me and my agent talked about it,” Bush said about getting the fifth-year option. “The team made a decision they needed to make, so we have to make decisions we need to make. I wasn’t butthurt or pissed off, it’s just business. I was already motivated regardless of my fifth-year option. I’m just motivated to win.”
ENTER MYLES JACK
Bush also gets the benefit of having a different caliber of linebacker than he’s had to play next to him over his past three season with the addition of Jack. Previously, Bush’s top partners were Vince Williams and Joe Schobert, two players who weren’t selected until the sixth and fourth rounds of their drafts.
Jack, however, was a second round pick by the Jaguars in the 2016 NFL Draft and emerged to be the Jaguars’ top linebacker in a short amount of time. His contributions played a big role in the Jaguars’ 10-6 season in 2017 that led to them beating the Steelers in the divisional round of the playoffs before losing to the Patriots in the AFC Championship.
In the fourth quarter, Jack recovered a fumble and was on his way to returning it for a touchdown before a referee’s whistle incorrectly blew the play dead. Had the play been called correctly, Jack would’ve given the Jaguars a 27-10 lead in the fourth quarter of a game they eventually lost 24-20. Jack admitted the play still haunted him, but wanted to focus on the here and now when talking with reporters Wednesday.
“It’s been great,” Jack said of joining the Steelers. “I’ve been getting acclimated, trying to figure out the playbook. But it’s been fun. The whole organization, the culture, it’s great to come into work every day. It’s just really about fine-tuning that playbook. Just be crisp in communication. I’m part of something great. All I have to do is my part and everybody else knows what they’re doing.”
As excited as Jack seemed to be about joining the Steelers, Bush seemed excited to have him as a partner.
“Myles is a playmaker,” Bush said. “He’s a guy who’s rangy and a guy who played running back in college. That tells you a lot about his ability. He’s a guy if he’s in the right spots and right places he can score touchdowns, cause turnovers, picks, force fumbles and get sacks. They can put him anywhere. He adds a lot of versatility to the defense. He’s an every-down linebacker too, so I think we complement each other well in that aspect.”
The respect was mutual.
“It’s been good,” Jack said about working with Bush. “We’ve been able to collaborate on a bunch of things. He’s obviously been here, so he’s bringing me up to speed with how he plays certain things in the playbook and what he sees. It’s been cool.”
As far as any hierarchy, don’t expect that to be shaken out anytime soon. The Steelers will see how the two perform in training camp and preseason before figuring out a pecking order. Jack confirmed both have been wearing the green dot during OTAs. The green dot is what discerns who hears the play calls for the defense and often goes to the top inside linebacker for the Steelers.
“That hasn’t been decided yet,” Jack said when asked about who has had the green dot. “Right now, we’ve both had the green dot so we can communicate. If I was called to do it, I could.”
Jack wore the green dot for the Jaguars last season, but ended up giving it up to the team’s Mike linebacker because of circumstances that involved the Steelers’ trade to get Joe Schobert.
“I wouldn’t say that,” Jack said when asked if he felt more free without having the green dot. “It was just that they felt with me playing Will linebacker when they had a Mike linebacker, they felt the Mike should have the green dot. In the preseason, Schobert had it, but we traded him and that put the green dot on me, but I was the Will. That created communication issues because the Mike had to wait for me to make the call and then he had to make the call after that. So they switched it over.”
What seems to excite Jack about the Steelers’ defense is how he expects to be deployed. He let on that he prefers the way the Steelers use their safeties and not solely rely on cover two defense to put their linebackers in tough positions.
“I felt like we were playing a lot of cover two,” Jack said of the Jaguars in 2021. “There’s a little more run-pass conflict because you don’t have that down safety in the box so it’s really seven-on-seven. If they want me to cover, run to the sideline, go B-gap or A-gap, I love it.”
THE FLORES EFFECT
It’s clear the Steelers’ defensive players have quickly come to respect Brian Flores’ coaching efforts after being added to the coaching staff this offseason. When Nick Farabaugh spoke to players like Terrell Edmunds and Buddy Johnson, it was clear he brought a different tone to his coaching than most position coaches.
That’s especially true for the linebackers, who have worked extra closely with Flores during OTAs.
“I think he’s a big, big addition to the Steelers,” Bush said of Flores. “Having him in the room is outstanding. He’s a guy that’s really football minded. He love the game. You can ask any type of question, have any type of discussion with him in talking about football or life.”
Bush has worked only with Steelers linebacker coach Jerry Olsavsky in his three years with the team. But Jack has worked with several, including Charlie Strong, Mark Collins and Robert Saleh. Jack sees a difference in the way Flores works.
“It’s been good,” Jack said of working with Flores. “He’s very detailed. He’s clear-cut and there’s no grey area with him. That’s great in this offseason because we can fine-tune a bunch of things. We know what’s right and what’s not. Even now, we have a meeting at 12:20 so we can go over what we did in the red zone. That way we can play faster.”
That certainty of knowing between right and wrong is big for Jack. He doesn’t want a coach who will let him off easy for getting a play partially right or correct for the most part. There’s only being 100 percent right, or being wrong.
“I feel like he’s very stoic,” Jack said when asked if Flores has a militaristic coaching style. “He’s coached a lot of ball and knows the right way to do it. When there’s a right way to do anything in life, you can’t stray from that path. He stays on that line. There’s no 20 percent being right, it’s either right or wrong. … Obviously as a head coach, his perspective is more clear-cut,” Jack said. “It’s more about ‘this is what it is, and this it is what it’s not.’ I enjoy that. That way I know exactly what I’m doing and I can play fast.”
Jack admitted Flores’ arrival in Pittsburgh played a role in his choosing the Steelers.
“That definitely weighed into it,” Jack said when asked if Flores played a role in his picking the Steelers in free agency. “When I was looking at the team and who they were going to be coaching me, that obviously played a role. You want a coach you know will put you in the best situation.”
If Bush and Jack can become a strong one-two punch for the Steelers at linebacker, it would give the defense two rangy, athletic players in the middle of the field.
The loss of Stephon Tuitt because of his retirement is a huge hole that Omar Khan will need to address one way or another. But if good linebacker play becomes a reliable factor for the defense, it would be a very good first step.