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Saunders: Steelers Are Finally Getting the Devin Bush They Drafted



Steelers ILB Devin Bush

When the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Devin Bush with the No. 10 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, it was probably something of a reach.

The Steelers had a deep need at inside linebacker, dating back to the untimely end to Ryan Shazier’s career, and Bush projected to be a better one than most. But off-ball linebacker is not a position that generally warrants that high of a draft stock, and Bush has done little to change that perception in the three years since his selection.

It does not seem that the Steelers have an All-Pro in the making in Bush, who has struggled mightily to regain his form after an ACL injury in 2020. But it does seem like they finally have what they hoped to get when drafting him.

Bush had a disaster of a 2021 season, when he looked like a completely different player than the one he had been before his injury. Bell looked hesitant, unsure of himself, and at times, downright slow. That’s the last descriptor that could have been used to portray the way Bush was received coming out of Michigan to the NFL.

Bush ran a 4.43-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, and though he weighed in at just 234 pounds, size for speed was a compromise the Steelers were willing to make. 

What Shazier had provided the Steelers was invaluable in his ability to cover an area of the field that is used by opposition players of vastly different skillsets. Big and physical tight ends, fast and twitchy slot receivers and powerful running backs all want to use the short middle of the field that is the domain of the inside linebackers in the Steelers’ defense.

The Steelers had a scheme that they thought could stop the run without both inside linebackers being big, downhill players. But they didn’t have another answer for how to cover the position-less slot threats that were rampaging the NFL. 

That’s why they paid a heavy price to get Bush in 2019, to shore up the middle of the team’s pass defense and allow the rest of the it to operate the way it wants to.

Bush was ever expected to be an outstanding run defender. Progress in that area was probably hoped for, it was the elite speed that made him someone the Steelers and other NFL teams badly wanted.

Here’s an expert from his draft profile in 2019.

“There will be NFL defenses who pass on Bush due to his lack of size, but his ability to play fast and free as an outside linebacker should supersede those concerns,” Lance Zeirlein wrote for “He will miss some tackles and get engulfed by blockers at other times, but his play strength and ability to run and cover are extremely valuable in today’s game and should not be diminished due to a tape measurement.”

Bush showed that speed and a knack for playmaking ability as a rookie, but in terms of actual pass coverage, he was still a work in progress. In 2019, he was targeted 68 times, with 46 completions (67%) for 435 yards and five touchdowns against. His passer rating against was a 97.4.

When he returned from injury, the Steelers defensive line in front of him was dealing with the dual losses of Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu in 2021, and Bush was needed much more often in the run game — a fit that worked badly for both the player and the team.

He didn’t do much better when pressed into coverage, either. He allowed 33 completions on 47 targets (70%) for 316 yards and two touchdowns.

But this season, things have changed for Bush, even if it’s not immediately evident in his coverage stats. Bush has been targeted 21 times, allowing 14 completions (67%) for 183 yards and one touchdown. 

The opposing passer rating has actually increased, to a career-best 109.8. That’s somewhat alarming, but it also doesn’t tell the whole story. Compared to his rookie year, the average depth of target against Bush has doubled. He defended an average of 3.9 yards from the line of scrimmage in 2019. In 2022, that average is eight yards.

He’s also doing the work against much more difficult opposition. Here’s two plays from the last two weeks.

In a crucial two-point conversion attempt, the Steelers rush four and drop seven. At the top of the screen, Josh Jackson has Mike Evans, with Tre Norwood over the top to help. At the bottom, James Pierre is 1 on 1 with Russell Gage. Robert Spillane takes Leonard Fournette out of the backfield and Terrell Edmunds takes tight end Cade Otton. 

That leaves Bush and Art Maulet in zones to deal with receiver Chris Godwin. Maulet would handle an out-breaking route, while Bush is responsible for the inside. Otton went right at Bush, creating a rub, but Bush worked through the contact, got to Godwin and made a game-saving pass breakup.

Here is one of the classic mismatches against the way the Steelers want to play defense. Miami comes out in a two-receiver, two-tight end set. That’s a run-heavy look for a first down, so the Steelers counter with their base defense. What Miami does is motion Jaylen Waddle to the same side of the formation where Tyreek Hill already is.

The Steelers have two defenders on that side of the field, but because they’re in base defense, one of them is a linebacker, Bush. When Hill took the inside angle toward his zone, that became Bush’s assignment. 

He does have Minkah Fitzpatrick behind him, but there is a ton of space short and medium for Hill to roam in on that side of the play. This is technically an RPO, but with the Steelers in base defense, it’s clear the mismatch is in the pass and Tua Tagovailoa never looked at any receiver other than Hill.

The problem for Miami is that Bush flawlessly carried Hill, probably the most dangerous slot receiver in football, 15 yards down field and broke up the pass.

Bush was not in a talkative mood about the play after the Steelers loss to the Dolphins, saying only, “It was my job. I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do.”

When pressed that covering the likes of Hill 15 yards down field is not an everyday assignment for an inside linebacker, Bush responded, “for me it is.”

This is a weakness that has plagued the Steelers defense for years and has been exacerbated by injuries and age keeping the front four from being as dominant against the run as they used to be. The Steelers need to be in base defense to stop the run on first down against two-tight end sets. But it is so easy to isolate a linebacker in coverage for an offense if they’re going to make that move.

Bush’s speed can fix all of that, and he never lacked speed. What was missing was the pass coverage skills to go along with it. As a rookie, Bush’s PFF coverage grade was 47.2. Last season, it was 57.7. So far this year, it’s 65.2, and trending upward.

Head coach Mike Tomlin was only slightly more elaborative than Bush was when asked about his young linebacker’s play on Tuesday.

“I agree (that he’s getting back to what the showed as a rookie),” Tomlin said. “But I think that’s been the storyline regarding him for the 2022 season. 

The Steelers finally got what they hoped to get out of Bush. That doesn’t necessarily vindicate the amount of resources spent on a non-premium position, nor does it mean they should pony up a big contract after declining his fifth-year option for 2023.

But it does mean they should start leaning on him more heavily than they have so far in 2022. Bush played only 74% of the team’s defensive snaps against the Dolphins, and has been under that three-quarter mark in all but one game this season.

Robert Spillane, a useful backup and a heady player, has been playing over Bush in the Dime package. That probably needs to change. The Steelers have a decision to make about Bush’s future with the team this offseason, and if he really can be the pass-game eraser that he was drafted to be, they should probably start thinking about what an extension that would keep him in Pittsburgh might look like.

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