The Steelers’ loss of their athletic stalwart in Devin Bush is a loss that this defense is going to have a hard time recovering from. Even with the promising play of Robert Spillane against Cleveland, there are still significant questions to be answered. For one, who gets the green dot moving forward.
What happens if Spillane happens to get hurt himself? Could the Steelers look outside the organization? All of these are questions that have to come up when discussing this situation. At this point, there is no great answer, as it is unlikely the Steelers will fully replace Bush. However, in order to at least fill his shoes a bit, here are some options the Steelers have moving forward.
Move Forward With a Rotation
Mike Tomlin made it clear in his press conference Tuesday that while Spillane will get significant snaps, this is not just going to be a one-for-one substitution with Bush and Spillane.
“I doubt Robert Spillane will be playing all the defensive snaps, so it will probably require a combination of people in an effort to replace Devin Bush,” Tomlin said. “That’s not unusual under the circumstances, but all that remains to be hashed out. Just rest assured that we are comfortable with the capabilities of all the men and there will be no excuses in terms of the performance of those that occupy the role.”
Based on the comments and the fact that Spillane took all the snaps that once belonged to Bush, it would stand to mean that Spillane will work in the base 3-4 alongside Vince Williams. However, in sub-packages, Tomlin hints at a rotation here. Marcus Allen and Ulysees Gilbert III will have huge opportunities to clear out bigger roles going forward. Tomlin shows confidence in those players with his comments here.
Spillane is getting an audition test here on Sunday against the Titans. Most importantly, it is unknown what Spillane’s skillset in coverage is at this time. The tape from last Sunday against the Browns proved Spillane loves to hit and has great instincts, however. His role as a likely two-down linebacker could expand with a strong performance.
Gilbert III is the only player who has the rare athleticism of Bush in this linebacker unit. However, a demotion down the depth chart was not something that was foreseen after so much hype throughout the offseason. The Steelers mentioned in training camp that they view Gilbert III as essentially a rookie and are bringing him along slowly as a result. In sub-package defense, it would stand to say Gilbert III might get the first stab at things given how high the Steelers were on him throughout the Summer.
Allen, on the other hand, is a now converted safety. With good athleticism and hit power, he is really just a faster version of Spillane with worse instincts. He fits nicely into the Mark Barron type of role if that is what the Steelers want. However, there is no clear answer with anyone on the roster. The good news, at the very least, is there is lots of potential.
Trading for Jets LB Avery Williamson
There are zero reasons to rule out a possible trade at this point. There are a few candidates to pick from, but Avery Williamson makes the most sense on paper for a number of reasons. For one, the Jets are having a fire sale. They are just trying to get whatever value they can for their players at this point. With Williamson in the last year of his contract, there is a great chance he will be on the market. The Steelers could easily jockey up a day three pick to go acquire Williamson.
Even Williamson’s price tag is not too hefty in terms of the cap hit. The Steelers would easily be able to fit him under the cap. With good athleticism, solid instincts, and especially high peaks during his career, Williamson is not a perfect trade-off for Bush, but he fills the role that Bush played perfectly. The biggest thing the Steelers gain with him is experience and coverage ability.
The only concerning thing with Williamson is that he is coming off of a Torn ACL, but thus far on the season, he has looked quite good. Williamson’s fit feels about as good as the Steelers will get on the trade market.
Trading for Lions LB Jarrad Davis
Davis is a step down from Williamson in terms of talent, but the same principle makes sense here. The Lions are a middling team in the NFC North and could look to move assets at the trade deadline. Davis had his fifth-year option declined by the Lions this offseason and they could look to get any compensation possible for him as he is likely leaving this offseason anyway.
The Steelers met with Davis in the 2017 pre-draft process. They brought him to Pittsburgh for a pre-draft visit, in fact. That at the very least is a strong indicator that the Steelers could have an interest in him if he is on the market. Davis would bring athleticism, but lacks the instincts needed to be truly effective. It hurts him in coverage and he has never been able to rectify these issues as a result.
Davis could be a solid depth move, however. For a veteran with lots of experience, Davis does make some sense for the Steelers if they are looking to give up minimal draft capital to fill any hole they see.
Look at the Free Agent Market
The Steelers’ last true option is to look to the free-agent market. Unfortunately, it is a market that is rather bare. Some candidates could include Wesley Woodyard, Nigel Bradham, and Deone Bucannon.
Bucannon is the name to circle here. Much like Davis, the Steelers brought Bucannon to Pittsburgh for a pre-draft visit in 2014, so there could be mutual interest here. Even more prominent, Bucannon is a hybrid safety and linebacker and would at least bring some athleticism and coverage ability to the team. If the Steelers do not want to give up any draft capital and see some depth problems, Bucannon makes sense to fill that role.
Steelers Host Three for Tryout, Including former Penn State DE Shareef Miller
The Steelers agreed to host three players for tryout on Thursday, according to the NFL transactions page, including potential backups at three positions impacted by COVID-19 reserve list and injury-related absences, as the the team hosted offensive tackle Cody Conway, defensive end Shareef Miller and center Zach Shackelford.
Conway (6-foot-6, 307 pounds) is a second-year pro out of Syracuse that has spent time with the Tennessee Titans, Green Bay Packers and most recently the San Francisco 49ers, who released Conway from their practice squad on Oct. 27. He has never played in an NFL game.
The Steelers played without backup tackle Jerald Hawkins on Wednesday and activated Anthony Coyle from the practice squad, but when starting right tackle Chukwuma Okorafor was briefly injured, Matt Feiler shifted to tackle and was replaced by Kevin Dotson at left guard.
Miller (6-foot-4, 255 pounds) is a second-year pro out of Penn State. He was a fourth-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Eagles in 2019 NFL Draft, but was waived before the start of the 2020 season after playing just two snaps in his rookie season. Miller was claimed on waivers by the Carolina Panthers on Sept. 6, but waived once again a month later without playing a game. The Eagles then brought Miller back to their practice squad, but released him on Dec. 1.
A defensive end in the 4-3 alignment at Penn State, Miller likely projects to be an outside linebacker in the Steelers’ scheme, where he could help offset the loss of starter Bud Dupree, who was placed on the injured reserve list with an ACL injury on Thursday.
Shackelford (6-foot-4, 305 pounds) is a rookie out of Texas. He spent the offseason with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but was waived at the end of the training camp. With Maurkice Pouncey on the COVID-19 reserve list, the Steelers have just one natural center on their roster at the moment in Wednesday night’s starter J.C. Hassenauer.
Steelers Can Clinch Playoff Berth With Win, Division Title With Help on Monday
The Pittsburgh Steelers can clinch a playoff spot and possibly the AFC North title this Monday against Washington.
The 11-0 Steelers will clinch at least a playoff berth with a win or tie or a Las Vegas Raiders, Miami Dolphins or Indianapolis Colts loss or tie.
All of those games will take place on Sunday, as Las Vegas plays at the New York Jets, Miami will host the Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis visits the Houston Texans.
The Steelers can clinch an AFC North title with a win, a Cleveland Browns loss and by clinching the strength of victory tiebreaker over the Browns. The Steelers currently have a .412 strength of victory, while the Browns have a .306 strength of victory, which is the combine winning percentage of all the teams a team has beaten. The Browns play at the Tennessee Titans on Sunday.
The Steelers have missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the second time this century. They have not missed the playoffs for three consecutive seasons since 1998-2000 under Bill Cowher.
The Steelers last won the AFC North in 2018. Since the division was formed in 2002, the Steelers have won it eight times, the Baltimore Ravens have won it six times and the Cincinnati Bengals four times.
Steelers DL Cam Heyward Nominated for Art Rooney Sportsmanship Award
Steelers defensive lineman Cam Heyward is one of the 32 players nominated for the Art Rooney Sportsmanship Award on Thursday.
Each NFL team nominates one player for the award, which recognizes players who exemplify outstanding sportsmanship on the field.
The award has been given out since 2014 in honor of Steelers founder Art Rooney, Sr. A panel of former players including Pittsburgh native Curtis Martin will select eight finalists from the the 32 nominees and then the NFL players will vote on a winner.
The other nominees from the AFC North are Baltimore defensive end Calais Campbell, Cincinnati linebacker Josh Bynes and Cleveland running back Nick Chubb.
No Steelers player has ever won the award. Washington running back Adrian Peterson won the award in 2019.