Special teams is the most overlooked part of football. Play poorly on football’s third unit and you’re not going to win many games. It’s also a tool for so many players to start their NFL career, get their foot in the door, and use it as a pathway to playing their side of the ball. Robert Spillane is the most recent example of that. Called up to the 53 mid-way through last season, he’s gotten the chance to play defense after Devin Bush’s season-ending ACL tear.
Spillane joined Sirius Radio’s Gil Brandt and Alex Marvez on their show Late Hits to talk about his NFL journey. From UDFA, to bouncing around the league, to hopefully finding a home with Pittsburgh.
“During my time on special teams, I just wanted to show them that I could be a trusted member of the team,” Spillane told Brandt and Marvez. “And when they asked me to run a card on the card defense, that I was going to do it the right way. And through those repetitions, you just start to earn respect from your teammates and your coaches, and they start to trust you more and more.”
Spillane signed a futures contract with the team in February of 2019. After failing to make the initial roster, he was signed to the practice squad and worked as part of the scout team. As he references, “running the card” for presumably the scout team defense and giving the Steelers their first clue that Spillane was a vocal, clear, and effective communicator.
After Ulysees Gilbert’s season-ending back injury later that year, Spillane was elevated to the 53.
“And when they see you doing good things on film throughout the week and practice, they trust you and then eventually want to see it on special teams. So when I was able to get my call on special teams, I knew that this was my second opportunity in the NFL, and I didn’t want to let it slip through the cracks. So I made sure when I was running down our kickoffs or doing it on punts, that I was going 120 miles an hour, getting as fast as I could to speed showing them that I could run and make plays for the team.”
Spillane made an immediate impact on the coverage unit. In just eight games, he racked up 11 total tackles, nearly grabbing the team lead. That’s how he spent the beginning of 2020 too until Bush went down mid-game versus the Browns. That thrust Spillane into significant action, including calling the defense, which all began with him running the card on scout team.
Though he still logs snaps on special teams, Spillane has shown he’s more than just a special teamer. Once a journeyman bouncing around from team-to-team every summer, he’s proven staying power in Pittsburgh.