Pro Football Focus continues to offer their summer rankings heading into the 2020 season, tackling the guys who tackle the most in today’s list. They ranked the top off-ball linebacker units in football, placing the Pittsburgh Steelers at a respectable 11th place.
The list of course centered around two plays – Devin Bush and Vince Williams. On Bush, the site wrote:
“Bush had the usual rookie ups and downs on his way to a 62.9 overall grade that ranked 40th among NFL linebackers. Bush’s athleticism has given Pittsburgh a different look, and he posted a solid 65.2 coverage grade; he’s primed to take a big step forward in Year 2.”
A fair assessment across the board. Bush made mistakes in coverage and in run defense but quickly learned from those errors and played much more consistent football by year end. With his rookie season under his belt, he’s poised to take over the every-down role and presumably become the Steelers’ signal caller on defense. It’s an understatement to say they’re counting on him in 2020.
PFF showed some love to the normally underappreciated Vince Williams, who will start opposite Bush this season.
“Next to Bush is Vince Williams, more of a traditional run-stopping thumper who has been one of the league’s best blitzing linebackers over the past three years. Williams had 19 pressures on just 56 rushes last season en route to a career-high 76.2 overall grade.”
Williams saw a drop in his stats in 2019 thanks to a reduced role as largely base linebacker, registering 55 tackles. Compare that to 2017 and 2018 when he had 89 and 76, respectively. His role could expand now that Barron’s gone but it’s unclear if the team will play him as often as before. When he is on the field, what PFF says is spot on – he’s excellent against the run and among the best off-ball blitzing linebackers in the game with 17.5 career sacks.
Depth here is a concern, as the site points out. Ulysees Gilbert III is entering his second year after a rookie season cut short by a back injury, though he impressed in camp, preseason, and led the Steelers in special teams snaps before his season ended. Robert Spillane should be the new Tyler Matakevich, a special teams ace and four-phase player on that unit. Then there are UDFAs like Leo Lewis and John Houston, facing major uphill battles without an offseason.
Seeing the Steelers ranked this high, narrowly missing the top ten, is a little surprising but refreshing to see. If Bush can become the player he was drafted to be, and he’s on track to do that, they should crack single digits by the end of the year.
Pittsburgh has by far the best linebacker group in the North according to PFF. Next up is Baltimore at #20, Cincinnati at #30, and Cleveland at #31.