PITTSBURGH — Devin Bush’s fourth season with the Steelers has been one of the biggest stories leading into the 2022 season. After his recovery from an ACL injury in 2020, Bush struggled in 2021. The Steelers declined Bush’s fifth-year option as a result, and made 2022 a real prove-it year for the fourth-year linebacker out of Michigan.
But if you ask the team’s new defensive coordinator, Teryl Austin, he likes the way Bush has approached his road back to playing at 100 percent and sees 2022 as a big year for him.
“He’s approached it well,” Austin said Wednesday before Steelers’ minicamp practice at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. “He’s been here for the most part, including the voluntary stuff. He’s here now. He’s asking the right questions. He’s in the meetings. He’ll be better.”
Bush’s play in 2021 made him look more hesitant of a linebacker than the aggressive defender he had shown in his first two seasons. Austin was the Steelers’ defensive back coach during that time. He’s seen Bush’s highs and lows.
“In my experience with guys who tear their ACL, they’ll play the whole year but they’re not the same guy until the second year,” Austin said on Bush. “We’re hoping to see that uptick in his performance. We want to see the guy before his injury.”
What’s as important as Austin’s belief in Bush is the linebacker’s belief in himself. At least from a standpoint of Bush talking to reporters after practice, he’s on the same page.
“Last year, I was cleared but I wasn’t able to do this around camp last year,” Bush said during OTAs. “I remember I was still learning how to land from my offseason training. I was jumping off boxes and learning how to land. Now, I’m able to go out and do things early. I’m not catching up anymore.”
When Bush didn’t have to catch up, he was the Steelers’ leading tackler in 2019 and a big contributor to the defense’s strong start to the 2020 season before he tore his ACL. Bush sees last year as a time when he still needed to recover from his injury.
“Before the injury I felt like I was doing well,” Bush also aid. “I think I was on the way to being All-Pro or Pro Bowl, but things happen. I’ve learned a lot along the way. I’m grateful for it and I’m thankful I get to go out and play again.”
If Bush got back to where he was before his injury, it would go a long way for the Steelers’ run defense. In the 2020 season opener the Steelers held Saquon Barkley to six rushing yards on 15 carries. That’s the fewest amount of yards by a running back who rushed 15 times in a game in NFL history. Bush made seven tackles, and showed the sideline-to-sideline skills Brian Flores wants to see in 2022.
“Devin is obviously very talented,” Flores said about Bush on Wednesday. “He’s a smart kid. I’ve had a good rapport and good conversations with him thus far. And I’m excited to keep working. This doesn’t this is not something we talk about second day or minicamp and you just jump out on the field in September. It’s something that you build towards, something that you work on daily. And he’s doing those things.”
But it won’t be until training camp that Flores can really evaluate Bush’s progress.
“The physical, he looks good out here,” Flores continued on Bush. “You really can’t evaluate linebackers until you get the pads on. It’s one thing shorts, it’s another thing when you got a 330-pound guard coming at you. So, it’s early in the process. I would say so far, he’s done a nice job, along with all the guys in that room. But again, he’s just trying to get better every day.”
Part of what Flores sees as what can help Bush is the other linebackers on the team. Myles Jack is a player with over 100 tackles in each of the past two seasons while reigning Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt works with Alex Highsmith on the outside.
“There’s a lot of versatility within the group,” Flores said of the Steelers’ linebackers. “When we put the inside and outside backers together, there’s just guys who can do a number of things: coverage, taking on blocks, beating blocks tackling, obviously blitzing. So there’s a myriad of things you’ve got to do at the position. Communication is at the top of it. And that’s something that I’ll stress every day. We’re obviously working towards that. But again, it’s still very early. Without pads on, it’s hard to evaluate the most important part of the game.”
Jack spoke later on Wednesday about his communication with Bush improving now that the Steelers are doing more full team practices on the field.
“We’re doing better now that we’re playing 11 on 11,” Jack said about his chemistry with Bush. “Now we’re really leaning on each other and bouncing off each other. It’s been great. The more we get into real football, the more we can ramp up. But it’s great working with Devin. I’m learning about him, he’s learning about me.”
It’s important that the Steelers don’t just hope, but actually believe, that Bush will raise his level of play. Even Bleacher Report lists Bush as an important X-factor for the Steelers’ 2022 hopes. Despite the comments of former Steelers like Merril Hoge, who ripped Bush last week, there are legitimate reasons for the Steelers’ expectations.
He’s shown he can play at the level the Steelers need for an inside linebacker. He just has to show he can get back to that place now that he’s had a full season to recover from his injury. I argued this point more on Monday’s episode of the Locked on Steelers podcast that you can watch here: