The Steelers are 6-0, and while the team has had relatively good health for the season, there have been key injuries that have struck at inopportune times. Most recently, the Steelers lost Devin Bush for the season with a torn ACL.
However, he has not been the only one. Mike Hilton has missed time with a shoulder injury, Diontae Johnson has been nicked up, and Derek Watt has missed multiple games with a hamstring injury. Yet, at all spots, the Steelers have yet to miss a beat.
These are not just minor injuries either. Bush is the glue in the middle of the defense. Johnson is the shifty receiver that makes team fear the Steelers quick passing game. Hilton is the best run defending slot cornerback in the NFL and expands the Steelers’ blitz packages. Even Watt is a fantastic special teamer. Yet, the Steelers continue to chug along like nothing is wrong.
Mike Tomlin talks about the “next man up” mentality every week when it comes to the health of his team. The Steelers work through replacing their injured guys and getting them the replacements up to speed quickly. Even still, this is a mentality that is much easier said than done. Raw talent is hard to replace, especially when these are inexperienced, young players that are stepping in for those key contributors.
However, as the Steelers have shown in the past two weeks, Bush’s injury thus far has yet to be felt. Robert Spillane, a former undrafted free agent out of Western Michigan, has stepped in well. Playing on base downs, Spillane’s physicality and football IQ have been key in his standout performance. He has even shown he has more athleticism than anticipated. His big hit on Derrick Henry on Sunday was just the icing on the cake for a strong two weeks for Spillane.
Ulysees Gilbert III stepped into the other part of Bush’s role, which is sub-packages. Gilbert is now working in that role, and while not tested all that much on Sunday, Gilbert looked rather solid. Most importantly, he has the same speed and rare athleticism for the position that Bush presents.
With Johnson banged up this year, Chase Claypool and James Washington have jumped in at random times to step up in a big way. When Johnson was hurt early in Week 5 against the Eagles, Claypool stepped in and was the unsung hero. Against Cleveland, both Claypool and Washington had a touchdown.
Cam Sutton played a tremendous game in the absence of Hilton against Tennessee. With a near interception and two pass deflections, it was undeniable that Sutton had a strong game. Working as both a slot corner and in his usual dimebacker role, Sutton’s football smarts were on display the entire game. He worked as a deep third safety, yet again as well.
Justin Layne came into the game in those dime package sets as well. With Steven Nelson kicking inside, it was Layne who was tasked with guarding the boundary. In fact, in his limited snaps, Layne held his own. On the final drive by the Titans, Layne was mostly tasked with covering A.J. Brown, and he shut him down. While not targeted, if Layne had been targeted, he would have been in an excellent position to make a play. It was simply clear that Layne’s length was disruptive and an issue.
As for Watt’s injury, the Steelers have used both Trey Edmunds, Jaylen Samuels, and even Henry Mondeaux to replace his production on offense. As lead blockers, both Edmunds and Mondeaux have cleared lanes for goal-line touchdowns. Samuels took over Watt’s wingback role and secured himself a jet sweep on Sunday. It is a position that has been filled by committee, but an effective one at that.
All of that is to say, the season has thrown rolling punches the Steelers way, but they have stayed resilient. All these young guys stepping into bigger roles have played at a high-level. That shows this team buys into the next man up mentality that Tomlin instills in the locker room. This is further proof of Tomlin’s leadership skills to sell this mentality to the locker and get them all to buy-in.
In addition, it is a credit to all the position coaches. They are coaching these guys up during the week to get them ready for the big stage, and so far all of them have come through in a big way. The biggest example of this is when David DeCastro was injured not once, but twice, and Kevin Dotson came into the game with no problems. The Steelers did not miss a beat with Dotson at the helm. Zach Banner tore his ACL and Chuks Okorafor has been fantastic in his absence. Offensive Line Coach Shaun Sarrett deserves a lot of praise to get these guys up to speed. The players are buying into the mentality.
All across the roster from the defense to the offense and even special teams, the Steelers’ backups have filled in well every time they have been asked to do so. That is rare for any NFL team to have in a given season. However, thanks to great leadership from Tomlin, high-level position coaching, and buy-in mentality from the players, the Steelers have overcome injuries with the next man up mentality.
Without the mentality, it is hard to see the Steelers being 6-0 right now. It is the gift that keeps on giving and going forward, it is hard to see it not paying dividends for a talented, but still somewhat young team down the stretch.