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Saunders: Can the Steelers Fix Devin Bush?

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Steelers linebacker Devin Bush Jr. has had a tough 2021 season.

Since his return from ACL surgery, Bush has not looked like the same player he did before being injured midway through 2020, and the numbers have born out what the eye test suggests.

In 21 games before his injury, Bush averaged .33 turnover plays per game, .33 passes defended per game, .43 tackles for loss per game, and 6.42 tackles per game. In nine games since, he has averaged .22 takeaways per game, .11 passes defended, .22 tackles for loss and 5.11 tackles. The only area where he’s improved is sacks, where his two is equal to his first 21 games played.

The dropoff in play has caused a chorus of criticism from the fanbase toward Bush, to the point that his father called into the local radio station last week to defend his play. That was before Austin Ekeler gashed Bush and the rest of the Steelers’ defense for four touchdowns on Sunday night.

There’s a lot to unpack when it comes to the level of unhappiness with the Steelers’ starting inside linebacker.

Bush was a top-10 pick, one that the Steelers traded up to get. A lot went into his selection, and it had been years coming, as the Steelers struggled to find a replacement for Ryan Shazier after his unfortunate, career-ending injury.

Bush was touted as a player in the same style as Shazier, a quick, slightly undersized linebacker that could excel in coverage and keep teams from using tight ends, backs and slot receivers to abuse the Steelers’ defensive scheme. The hope was that Bush would serve as a proto-safety, covering up top athletes from other teams and freeing up the Steelers to let other players focus on stopping the run and rushing the passer.

That hasn’t really played out, even before Bush’s injury. Pro Football Focus, in grading Bush’s pass coverage ability, has never once had it as his top attribute. He’s been a solid tackler throughout and has become a better pass rusher. Until his injury, he was stout against the run.

That was evident when looking at how the Steelers defense played last season before and after his injury. Including the game against the Browns during which he was injured, the Steelers allowed 3.3 yards per rushing attempt with Bush in the lineup in 2020. Without him, that number ballooned to 4.6 yards per carry.

That’s the thing that changed since he tore his ACL. Bush has been dreadful against the run this year, with Ekeler’s first score highlighting an inability to shed or elude blocks and PFF grading him at a miserable 27.4 against the run.

It’s reasonable to expect Bush to get back to form in the run game once he gets comfortable once again playing on a surgically repaired knee. It would also help him a lot if the non-Cam Heyward members of the Steelers’ defensive line weren’t consistently being blown backwards into Bush on running plays.

But that’s only a partial fix. Bush can return to his previous levels of run defense, and given his age, may even be expected to improve a bit. That, combined with his continued improvement as a pass rusher and, even in his current reduced capacity, a solid nose for the football, will make Bush a useful starter once again.

But “useful starter” isn’t what the Steelers were going for when they traded up to get Bush with the No. 10 pick. They had a run-plugging, pass-rushing inside linebacker already in Vince Williams. He was a sixth-round pick. Robert Spillane appears to be cut from largely similar cloth. The Steelers got him off the street. Joe Schobert was acquired for a mid-round pick. Those players are relatively easy to find.

What they needed when they drafted Bush was a three-down player that could deal with the kind of positionless offensive weapons that have been terrorizing NFL defenses: the Tyreek Hills and Travis Kelces and Kyle Pittses and Cordarelle Pattersons of the world.

Even before his injury, Bush’s pass coverage ability did not project to be up to that task. Now, he’s getting shredded by opposing backs out of the backfield like Ekeler and is being taken out of the game in the Steelers’ Dime package.

He’s being replaced there by Spillane, who is not a superior coverage defender. Neither is fellow inside linebacker Schobert. Outside of perhaps little-used Marcus Allen, the Steelers don’t seem to have one at the position.

The injury and its after-effects will heal with time. Bush should be once again expected to be the sideline-to-sideline run stuffer he once was. But the theory of trading up to acquire him, based on attempting to replace what Shazier brought to the defense as that elusive cover linebacker, has failed. The Steelers need to go back to the drawing board to find a way to get that covering production out of the players they have.

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Daniel Bartoli
Daniel Bartoli
November 24, 2021 9:05 am

The biggest concern with Bush is his lack of effort shedding blocks. Too often he seems willing to dance with the OL. The Ekeler TD where he ran right by Bush is a great example of poor effort fighting off a blocker.

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