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.