PITTSBURGH — This year has been a trying year for many around the world and the region, but so far, 2020 has been pretty good to Pittsburgh’s football teams.
The Pittsburgh Steelers improved to 3-0 on the season on Sunday with a 28-21 victory over the Houston Texans at Heinz Field.
One day earlier on the same playing surface, the Pitt Panthers had earned their third straight win to start the season with a 23-20 win over the Louisville Cardinals.
It’s been a long time since Pittsburgh’s football fans had such a successful start to the season. The last time both Pitt and the Steelers won each of their first three games was all the way back in 1982.
Pitt’s squad, led by quarterback Dan Marino, ended up winning seven in a row that year before losing to Notre Dame and Penn State in November and SMU in the Cotton Bowl, finishing 9- and ranked No. 10 in the country.
The Steelers’ 3-0 start that season was a strange one, as the beat the Dallas Cowboys to open to the season and prevailed over the Cincinnati Bengals in overtime before the NFL players went on strike, stopping the season until late November. When play resumed, the Steelers defeated the Houston Oilers to improve to 3-0.
But Terry Bradshaw’s injured elbow limited him throughout the season and the Steelers dropped three of their next four, finishing 6-3 and with a first-round playoff loss to the San Diego Chargers.
Both teams will put their unbeaten records on the line next weekend, with No. 24 Pitt hosting NC State at Heinz Field and the Steelers visiting the equally undefeated Tennessee Titans. If they can keep their hot starts going, they’ll be equalling the 1979 season, when both teams started 4-0.
Film Study: Robert Spillane Impressive Filling in for Devin Bush
Devin Bush is done for the season.
In a tough blow for the Steelers defense, the Steelers will be without their speedy, athletic linebacker until 2021, assuming multiple media reports that Bush will require ACL surgery after his injury in the Steelers’ rout of the Cleveland Browns on Sunday.
As such, it leaves a huge void for the Steelers, who did not address the linebacker position in the 2020 NFL Draft or free agency.
The man that stepped in for Bush was for undrafted free agent Robert Spillane out of Western Michigan. Stylistically, there is nothing similar between the two. Spillane is an outstanding special teamer, but could he make the leap to the defense?
Robert Spillane Solid on Sunday
Spillane came into the game late in the second quarter, so there is an entire half of tape out there on him now. With five tackles and one of those for a loss, it was a decent game for Spillane filling for Bush. In fact, the Steelers’ defense seemingly did not miss a beat with Spillane instead of Bush, as they blanked the Browns in the second half.
Overall, this is a nice play by Spillane. While Kareem Hunt does end up wrestling forward ever so slightly for the first down, Spillane showcases three qualities that make this play encouraging. For one, he recognizes the screen and is in a great position to help at the second level as a result. Processing through his keys to see that is the first step for any linebacker wanting to get onto an NFL field. Second, he takes a direct angle to Hunt. Even with Spillane’s only modest speed, this angle is more than good enough to cut off Hunt’s lane. Lastly, Spillane does a nice job of breaking down and bringing the hammer down on Hunt. While the Browns do get the first down, it only ends up being a five-yard gain, and Hunt is no easy player to bring down in the open field.
This is Spillane’s best play of the day. If fans know nothing else about Spillane coming out of this game, it is that Spillane loves to hit. He had a few shots where he just laid the wood on guys. Austin Hooper was the benefactor of two of those unfortunate big shots. What is more impressive about this play is how Spillane sees right through the misdirection. The Browns are running a play-action off of outside zone concepts while Hooper sneaks around as the H-Back. This could easily be a split zone run heading the other way. Either way, Spillane key reads Hooper, scrapes back over the defensive line, and pastes Hooper right as he catches it. That is a high football IQ play.
Avoiding blocks and shedding them was something that Spillane was good at for most of the game, but this is one block that he has to avoid. The lineman just chop blocks Spillane and takes him out. Whether he has to sidestep the lineman or dip to avoid the block and make the tackle, a downhill linebacker like Spillane hopefully makes this play more often than not. Credit where credit is due, this is a nice block by JC Tretter, but Spillane needs to avoid the trash and chop blocks. Spillane keeps his head up and shoulders square to the line of scrimmage, just like they are taught. However, the saying to avoid cut blocks for linebackers in space is to “give ground to gain ground” by taking a few steps back to avoid the cut block. If Spillane follows that, he can avoid the block and make the tackle on Hooper comfortably in the open field.
Spillane puts on a master class on how to defeat a reach block at the second level here. He stuns the lineman with a strong punch to the chest, but extends out fully to keep himself clean. That gives him the ability to shed this block at any time when he wants to. He rips down to shed the block and successfully executes a stack and shed. Then, he makes the tackle at the second level. Taking on blocks at the second level is huge for any linebacker nowadays, and this was a great, strong run fit.
There is zero doubt that Spillane’s first snaps are encouraging. From this perspective, it is clear he knows what he is seeing and that he works downhill more than fine. Despite not being the greatest athlete, Spillane’s hot motor can make up for that shortcoming at times. However, everything was mostly under him and he did not get tested that much in coverage, especially up the seam. While it was a good first impression for Spillane, his coverage ability will be a question mark that has to be answered in the coming weeks.
From the Locker Room: Ben Roethlisberger Explains How Steelers Defense Helps Offense
Despite putting up 31 of the teams’s 38 points scored in the Steelers win over the Browns, quarterback Ben Roethlsiberger explained to the media after the game that he didn’t really feel like the offense did that much. And Roethlsiberger’s final stat line points in that direction. The future Hall of Fame quarterback only completed 14 passes for 162 yards on the day.
Roethlisberger also talked about how the strong imposing play of the defense can help the offense have success, even without accumulating a bunch of big numbers.
From the Locker Room: Cam Heyward on Steelers Defense Punishing Baker Mayfield
Cam Heyward spoke to the media after the Steelers dominating win over the Browns. Heyward clarified comments he made prior to the game and explained how the Steelers defense was able to do so well against Browns QB Baker Mayfield.
The leader of the Steeles defense also touched on what message he’s telling the rest of the team about the mindset they should have while sitting at 5-0.