A lot of people seem to forget this, but the Pittsburgh Steelers were very good, on both sides of the ball, in 2017, at least for most of the year. That’s why they went 13-3, the third-best record they have ever had in franchise history.
Things started to fall apart on defense after Ryan Shazier’s injury in December, particularly against the run, however, and the unit bottomed out in their playoff loss against the Jacksonville Jaguars, whose offense dominated with power running against a banged up defensive line and play-action passing.
Devin Bush hasn’t nearly established himself the way Shazier had at that point in his career, but these are similar situations involving overall very good defenses who have lost their primary tackler and defensive signal-caller. So can they make sure this time things will be different?
“When we lost Ryan, we were pretty young around”, Cameron Heyward said. Even T.J. Watt was a rookie that year. Artie Burns, Sean Davis, and Javon Hargrave were in year two. Bud Dupree was in just his third season as well. Plus, it was Shazier. “We were still dealing with trying to replace a guy like that”.
“I don’t know what this situation holds, calls for”, Heyward admitted. “I know Rob [Spillane] had a great half, but it’s up to us to continue to get better. Everybody’s got to step up our game from here on out. We’ve got to continue to make a conscious effort to communicate because Devin’s down. But it does help having a guy like Vince Williams in the background and able to tutor guys and get guys to the right spots”.
The Steelers’ inside linebacker room is not as deep as it was a year ago, but it’s unlikely that they will be bringing in any names of significance in order to log snaps at the position, as they did in 2017 when Shazier went down, signing Sean Spence, and even trying Arthur Moats inside, before realizing that L.J. Fort should be playing more (he’s now a starter for the Ravens).
The options that they do have never played on defense before this season, with Spillane being the primary replacement, but I expect Ulysees Gilbert III to be involved as well, as a former 2019 sixth-round pick who has similar athletic traits to Bush.
They won’t have to wait long to find out how their run defense will hold up without him, of course, as for their nest game, they get to travel to face the unbeaten Tennessee Titans and the NFL’s leading rusher in Derrick Henry. If they can find a way to put a lid on him, that would instill a lot of confidence in what they are capable of doing even without one of their most important players.