The Steelers beat the Browns in dominating fashion last Sunday by the score 38-7. A large part of the success was due to Pittsburgh’s suffocating defense. Part of the excitement during rare blowout win was stolen away as middle linebacker, Devin Bush, went down mid-play from what would turn out to be a torn ACL. In his place now is a former undrafted free agent out of Western Michigan, Robert Spillane, a second-year special-teamer the coaching staff trusted this year as the next man up at the middle linebacker position.
While Bush, who up until his injury played every snap for the defense this season, will not be easy to replace, Spillane was ready to step up and fill his shoes the best he could. On his 30 defensive snaps, he registered five solo tackles, one assisted tackle, and a tackle for loss.
With the obvious thoughts from many Steelers’ fans and analysts being who will this team bring in to replace their injured linebacker, Spillane is making a case to stay with an in-house hire. Let’s take a deeper look at the performance he put on tape Sunday afternoon.
Looking at the second play after Bush’s injury, Spillane doesn’t take long to show everyone who he is. He smoothly drops into his pedal and reads the Browns screen. What you can see here is his rally to the ball as well as his hit power at the point of attack. Kareem Hunt (#27) is one of the most punishing runners in the entire NFL and Spillane makes it look like he just ran into a brick wall. Unfortunately, it was just ahead of the sticks for a first down, but okay Mr. Spillane you have me interested.
Spillane also shows he trusts his eyes and can play fluidly. Here, he fakes a blitz as he is manned up with the running back. The back begins to leak out to the flat, but at the last second looks to try to help block TJ Watt knifing through the line. Without hesitation, Spillane, “adds-on” to the blitz which is exactly what it sounds like. When a defender is manned up with a player, usually a back or a tight end, and they stay in to block instead of standing in no man’s land you blitz the quarterback, or “add-on.” Spillane gets in Baker Mayfield’s line of sight and jumps, just missing a deflection. Either way, you love seeing the full-speed motor throughout the play.
Effort is one of the few things that an individual can control on a football field and Spillane leaves it all out on the field every snap. Cameron Sutton busts a coverage on this play leaving Jarvis Landry (#80) wide open in the middle of the field. When Landry makes the catch he has about a ten-yard headstart on Spillane who is just turning around to find the ball. Spillane then sprints twenty-yards downfield to get in on the tackle of Landry.
In his coverage snaps, the Steelers mostly asked him to play a middle zone. He proved that’s well within his skill set. He reads Mayfield’s eyes well and breaks on the underneath crosser to the tight end. He shows impressive click and close before laying another big hit on a Browns ball-carrier short of the first down.
Browns tight end, Austin Hooper, is probably still icing his body after Sunday. You can see him getting hit in the previous clip, but he was laid out three more separate times. Once by Bud Dupree, once by Vince Williams, and an additional time by Spillane in the below clip. This time Spillane shows off his play recognition skills and again does a great job of trusting his eyes. He ignores the play-action in the backfield and accelerates past the oncoming blockers for another big hit and a tackle for loss.
I really tried hard to nitpick Spillane’s film to find some rough reps or even partially bad plays, but this is the only rep out of 30 that I truly thought wasn’t great. You can see here at the snap even with the whole line going left, he takes a false step to the right. Then, he slow plays it across the line and gets reached by backside tackle to spring a big run. These are the types of plays we’ve come to accustom to Bush making and may prove to happen more frequently now that he’s lost for the year.
He reeled it back in only a short 2 snaps later with this gem. You can take this right from lesson one of “Vince Williams’s School For Downhill Linebackers in 2020.” Spillane does his best impersonation of the professor as he keys the guard pulling at the snap, and not only fills the gap, but BLOWS up the guard in the hole. So much so that it pushes the guard slightly back causing the running back to stumble and get tackled from behind for a modest gain. These are the types of plays that will get your linebackers coach hooting and hollering in the film room.
The last thing I want to go over was Spillane’s man coverage. As previously mentioned, there weren’t a ton of man opportunities as he was often asked to just play a middle zone on pass plays, but when he was asked to play man he also did well. The next two clips below show him lined up with Browns’ former first-round tight end, David Njoku. In the first clip, Spillane, patiently waits with active feet anticipating Njoku to commit to a route. Once the tight end begins to sit, Spillane clicks and closes. If the quarterback doesn’t throw this one in the dirt from getting hit, it’s possible Spillane picks it off here.
In the second clip with Spillane vs. Njoku even with a push-off at the top of the route, Spillane stays in-phase and keeps good coverage. It’s not much, but it’s certainly not bad by any means for a guy that’s known as a downhill thumper.
We still don’t fully know how the Steelers will be addressing their linebacker situation going forward, whether it’s the more likely scenario of filling Bush’s spot with a combination of Spillane, Marcus Allen, and Ulysees Gilbert III or if it’s trading for a player the Steelers see as more capable to fill a 3-down role. However, Spillane made a great case for himself Sunday to be the guy. He did everything you could ask of your “next-man-up.”
What we have yet to see is how he does when he has to play a larger chunk of the snaps, not already up by 3 possessions. The other variable is teams will now be able to work up a scheme to try to attack the Steelers backup linebackers, which is when we will see how good the linebacker depth truly is without Bush. If you’re Robert Spillane, there’s no better time to prove to everyone what type of player you are than making your first NFL start against the team that cut you your rookie year with one of the most intimidating backs in all of football. Show us what you got Robert.