If things continue like we think they will this week for the Pittsburgh Steelers, inside linebacker Robert Spillane will be back on the field Sunday night for the team’s Super Wild Card game against the Cleveland Browns. While it’s still unclear if Spillane will start and then play a huge volume of snaps against the Browns on Sunday in his first game back from a knee injury he suffered in Week 13, defensive coordinator Keith Butler did acknowledge on Thursday during his media session what the inside linebacker’s return to the defense means overall.
“It helps the depth a lot,” Butler said of Spillane’s impending return on Sunday. “Whether we start him or not, I will see if we do or not. It is going to help the depth quite a bit. Last week when we went into the game last week, we had three inside linebacker and three outside linebackers, so we were short. For various reasons, we were. I feel much better about that position now than I did last week. I think we will be OK.”
Butler didn’t stop there, however, when talking about what Spillane’s return to the field on Sunday against the Browns means for the defensive unit as he said in so many words that the communication should improve as well.
“And then in terms of the coordination of the defense and talking and making sure we get up on the line of scrimmage so they can’t quick count us and try to take advantage of us do-si-do-ing around,” Butler said. “We can’t be doing any of that mess. We have to be ready to go. When they are ready, we are ready. That’s part of our coaching. That’s part of us making sure we get that stuff covered during the week in practice.”
Prior to suffering his knee injury against the Washington Football Team, Spillane was the quarterback of the defense and thus the wearer of the helmet with the green dot on it, which symbolizes it having the communication system inside of it. He handled that role well for the Steelers after assuming it fulltime starting in Week 7, a game after starting inside linebacker Devin Bush was lost for the remainder of the year to a knee injury of his own.
“He’s [Spillane] done a good job for us in terms of stepping up when we needed some help inside,” Butler said on Thursday. “We lost Devin [Bush]. He stepped up and doing some things we wanted him to do and help us with the communication.”
While the Steelers run defense hasn’t necessarily been great throughout the recently concluded regular season, at least there were a few games that the unit held the opposing team’s offense under 100 yards rushing with Spillane being the defensive quarterback. However, in the four games that Spillane missed with his knee injury to close out the regular season, the Steelers defense allowed more than 100 yards rushing in each of them and an average of nearly 144 yards per game. The Steelers went 1-3 in those four games without Spillane as well and even lost the game in which he left early in with his injury in Week 13.
So, will a Sunday return to field by Spillane instantly make the Steelers defense better against the run?
“I hope that is just the issue,” Butler said on Thursday. “I hope that is. But I don’t know. You watch [Robert] Spillane play, you watch Derrick Henry run all year long and then who do you see jacking him up? Spillane did that. I didn’t see a whole lot of people doing that to that guy this year. But Spillane did that. We are glad to have him back. We will see how he does.”
Once again, with Sunday being Spillane’s first game back from injury after missing four consecutive weeks, it’s hard to expect him to go right back to playing nearly all the defensive snaps. After all, he just resumed practicing with the team on Wednesday so there might be some minor conditioning hurdles he’ll need to overcome right out of the chute and specifically Sunday night against the Browns. That could lead to a rotation of sorts with Spillane and the other three inside linebackers expected to play against Cleveland, Vince Williams, Avery Williamson, and Marcus Allen.
“There is always a tough time to come back when you haven’t been doing it for a while,” Butler said Thursday of Spillane.
Regardless of how much or how little Spillane plays Sunday night against the Browns, Butler made it clear on Thursday that he’s glad to have the team’s underrated inside linebacker back in the fold.
“He’s a smart guy, you don’t have to tell him something three or four time to get it done,” Butler said of Spillane. “He understands the concepts of what we are doing. He’s a good football player. The guy is a good football player. He probably didn’t get near the notoriety he got when he was coming out [of college] and stuff like that. All I know is he is here, and he is playing well for use. And I’m glad that he is here and playing well for us.”