How will the Steelers replace Devin Bush?
That was the question on the minds of many the moment Bush left Sunday’s Steelers win over Cleveland, even before it was revealed that the injury to the Steelers up and coming linebacker is serious enough to keep him out for the remainder of the 2020 season.
Now, it’s become a critical question, and as contenders around the AFC have faltered, perhaps the only major one standing in the way of the Steelers becoming a prime contender to play for a Super Bowl title this winter.
The problem is that it’s not a question there’s a satisfactory answer to. Just think about what it took to get Bush in the first place, who in his own way is also an injury replacement.
When Ryan Shazier suffered his season- and career-ending spinal injury in Cincinnati in 2017, the Steelers were left with a gaping hole in their defense that was exploited by Blake Bortles and the Jacksonville Jaguars of all people as the team with a loaded offense whimpered to a first-round playoff exit.
Sean Spence started the last five games of the season for the Steelers at inside linebacker alongside Vince Williams. Those were the last five games of his NFL career.
In second-year backup Robert Spillane, the Steelers have a player of at least that ilk. Though the Steelers have confidence, his ability will be seen over the next few games. There are other options, as well, in the form of 2019 sixth-round pick Ulysees Gilbert III and converted safety Marcus Allen.
There are players that are free agents or that may be acquired from another team for minimal return that may represent an upgrade to that group, but none of those players are going to replace Bush.
After the loss to the Jaguars, took the Steelers over another year of wading through other options before they were finally able to replace Shazier. In 2018, free agent signing Jon Bostic made 14 starts at inside linebacker, L.J. Fort started two and Tyler Matakevich started one.
The Steelers fell from the No. 7 scoring defense in the league in 2017 to No. 16 with the 2018 unit. The only other starters that changed on the defense were Mike Mitchell and Artie Burns for Terrell Edmunds and Coty Sensabaugh in the secondary, and Sensabaugh did so by beating out Burns while he remained on the roster. The biggest change was the man playing next to Williams at inside linebacker.
Going into the 2019 season, the Steelers knew they needed to do something more. They signed Mark Barron as a free agent, but considered him another stop-gap at best, though perhaps better than the previous options. But a better free agent that would fit into the Steelers’ salary cap crunch could not be found.
Even when focused on the 2019 NFL Draft, there was such a dearth of inside linebacker prospects that Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert felt compelled to trade up to get Bush instead of waiting for a player at their spot.
To replace Shazier, it took going through nearly a half-dozen other options and trading up in the draft to get a player that could finally do at least most of the things he was able to do on the field in the middle of the Pittsburgh defense. Thankfully, it does not appear at this point that Bush’s injury will extend beyond the 2020 season, but replacing him for the remainder of this year will be nearly impossible.
The Steelers were able to pull off something similar to that feat in 2019, trading a first-round draft pick for Minkah Fitzpatrick after safety Sean Davis was injured. It was the first time the Steelers had traded their first-round pick since the 1960s. It’s unlikely they’ll find the combination of a talented player and a motivated seller once again, and even if they do, will Colbert want to trade his first-round pick again? The team has little else it could spare to offer a team to try to get them to part with a top talent.
Instead, it appears that a combination of Spillane, Gilbert and Allen, plus whoever else the team can scrounge up, will have to do when it comes to replacing Bush, and even though they’re unlikely to do a representative job of it, that seems about the best the Steelers can hope for.
With the additions of Fitzpatrick and Steven Nelson and the emergence of Bud Dupree as one of the league’s premier pass rushers, this Steelers’ defense might be better suited to deal with the loss of an important cog at inside linebacker. But the way the NFL as a whole, and particularly the top teams in the AFC in Baltimore and Kansas City, likes to put pressure on a defense, it’s likely that the loss of Bush will be felt for quite some time.