The Steelers were faced with a double test on Sunday in their first game to be played without starting inside linebacker Devin Bush.
So far, so good.
Bush was placed on injured reserve and is expected to miss the remainder of the 2020 season after suffering an ACL injury that required surgery in the Steelers’ Week 6 win over the Cleveland Browns.
His replacement, third-year pro Robert Spillane, performed admirably against tough competition. The Tennessee Titans run the ball with All-Pro back Derrick Henry better than almost anyone in the country and the also use a pair of talented tight ends and play-action passes to put pressure on defenses.
But the inexperienced Spillane, making his first career start after playing just 39 career snaps on defense coming into the game, proved to be mostly up to the task in Pittsburgh’s 27-24 victory.
“It’s very tough to fill in that middle linebacker position, especially when you have a player as talented as Devin is,” outside linebacker T.J. Watt said. “We truly believe in the next-man-up mentality and I feel like Rob Spillane did a great job.”
The Steelers also made some other changes, moving Bud Dupree around the defense and also some modifications to their sub packages in order to replicate the three-down effort that Bush usually brings.
“We knew it was going to take the whole team to provide depth for Devin,” Spillane said. “We knew it was going to be 11 on defense, offense and special teams to make up for his absence.”
Spillane’s biggest impact — literally — came in the second half at the Steelers’ goal line, when he plugged a gap on a running play and collided with Henry at full speed.
Robert Spillane, I SALUTE you. If people didn't know who you were before this play, they will after this. I promise you, you will see this play ALL WEEK! pic.twitter.com/koZzfUsvFo
— Charlie Batch (@CharlieBatch16) October 25, 2020
“They’re on the 1-yard line,” Spillane said. “They’ve got a 250-pound running back. There’s no going slow into the hole. I took all my force with me and TJ was there to help, as well.”
Spillane briefly left the game after the big hit and the Titans wound up scoring later on that drive after a defensive penalty on Minkah Fitzpatrick, but on the whole, there defense did a better job of limiting Henry and company than most.
He finished the afternoon with 75 yards on 20 carries, which is the second-lowest rushing total for for the big back over his last 10 games.
On the whole, the Steelers weren’t completely satisfied with their performance defensively, especially in the second half but Spillane’s fill-in work did the trick.
Alex Highsmith Needs MRI after Ankle Injury Suffered vs. Browns
PITTSBURGH — Steelers rookie linebacker Alex Highsmith suffered an ankle injury that will require an MRI in Sunday’s playoff loss to the Cleveland Browns.
Highsmith left the game in the first half and was seen limping on the Pittsburgh sideline. He made an attempt to return to the game, but was unable to continue playing and did not see the field at all in the second half.
In-game, the Steelers announced that Highsmith was doubtful to return with an ankle injury. After the fact, head coach Mike Tomlin said that Highsmith suffered a high ankle sprain. Highsmith’s father posted on Twitter early on Monday morning that Highsmith will require an MRI on his injured ankle.
Not the way we wanted the season to end but I am thankful to have been a part of this amazing ride! The Highsmith Family is proud to wear the Black & Gold and we look forward to more success in the future! Please pray for Alex as he gets an MRI tomorrow on his ankle! #HereWeGo pic.twitter.com/JJA4PpZpvx
— Sam Highsmith (@SHighsmithClan) January 11, 2021
Given that Highsmith was able to walk and even run in short bursts after the injury, it does not seem likely that it will impact his offseason training plans.
The team’s third-round draft pick out of Charlotte, Highsmith was thrust into a starting role after starting outside linebacker Bud Dupree suffered an ACL injury that required surgery.
On the season, Highsmith played in 16 regular season game and made five starts. He finished with 48 tackles, five for a loss, six quarterback hits, one interception and one pass defended.
With Dupree set to become an unrestricted free agent and unlikely to return, Highsmith should be expected to retain his starting role in 2021.
Mike Tomlin Doesn’t Regret Punt, Will Talk to Ben Roethlisberger About Future
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin answers questions from the media following his team’s shocking defeat at the hands of the Browns in the playoffs. Tomlin explained why he decided to punt on a 4th and 1 in the 4th quarter while trailing by multiple scores. He also touched on the timeline for when he will talk to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger about his future with the team.
JuJu Smith-Schuster Says He Doesn’t Regret ‘Browns Is the Browns’ Comment
PITTSBURGH — It was repeated so often in the five days between when JuJu Smith-Schuster said the phrase on Wednesday to Sunday night’s game at Heinz Field, that it nearly became the No. 1 talking point coming into the game.
“The Browns is the Browns.” Before the game, after the game and probably during the game, many of the Browns made it clear that they had taken exception to Smith-Schuster’s characterization of the team.
The Browns IS THE BROWNS!! 🌚
— Jedrick Wills Jr.®️++💕 (@JWills73) January 11, 2021
Smith-Schuster said after the game that he had no regrets about what he said.
“You know, I don’t regret what I said,” Smith-Schuster said. “I said, ‘The Browns is the Browns.’ They came out and they played a hell of a game. You know, there’s been games where we feel we lose them and today wasn’t our night and hopefully the same Browns will show up next week against the same opponent and go out and do the same thing they did tonight and have a hell of a game.”