Props to Steelers’ LB Robert Spillane. After replacing Ulysees Gilbert III mid-way through 2019, Spillane became one of the top special teamers not only on the Steelers but in the NFL. Over just 11 games, he recorded 11 tackles, all on special teams, finishing second on the team and a stone’s throw away from near the top in the league.
Can he do the same in 2020? He won’t spend this year on the practice squad like he did a year ago. He’s almost a lock to the make the team as the #4 ILB and core special teamer. Given the tackling machine he was last year, could set a decade record for special teams tackles this year? Let’s look back at the leaders the past ten seasons. Tackle info comes courtesy of Pro Football Reference.
2019: Derek Watt, JT Gray, Tyler Matakevich – 16
2018: Adrian Phillips: 17
2017: Budda Baker: 12
2016: Michael Thomas – 10
2015: Matthew Slater -14
2014: Justin Bethel, Tahir Whithead, Matthew Slater – 9
2013: NaVorro Bowman – 10
2012: Reed Doughty – 8
2011: Cory Greenwood – 9
2010: Hiram Eugene – 10
Phillips holds the top mark over the past ten years, recording 17 tackles in 2018. Quick math tells you that’s just over one per game, right where Spillane was at a year ago (11 in ten games). Mathematically, it’s possible.
So what’s made Spillane so effective? He combines being a physical, technical player with better athleticism of someone like say, Matakevich, a fierce special teamer in his own right. Take this kickoff against the Rams. Spillane takes a good angle to the ball, physical to defeat the first block (who wasn’t his assignment, to be clear), then changes directions with the returner and closes to make the stop.
He’s #41 in this clip, L2 on the kick coverage unit (two to the left of Chris Boswell).
Or this punt at the end of the year versus Baltimore. Finds the ball, takes the correct angle, and finishes with a wrap up tackle using the sideline as leverage.
Special teams, like every other aspect of football, is a team sport. That’s why they’re units, working together. Spillane’s production is partially a product of other people doing their job, like Johnny Holton containing the KR in the first clip or excellent placement by Jordan Berry in the second. But in open grass, Spillane’s been a tackling machine and will ease the loss of Tyler Matakevich by putting up similar – maybe even better – numbers.