Unless something changes between now and the start of the regular season—and admittedly, that is quite likely—then Robert Spillane will open up the 2021 slate as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ starting buck linebacker, lining up next to the man that he replaced last season, Devin Bush.
The latter was a day-one starter after being selected 10th-overall in the 2019 NFL Draft. He suffered a torn ACL five games into the season a year ago, leaving Spillane as the top backup to try to step into his shoes.
Now, however, they may well both be on the field, and while they have hardly seen a single snap on the field together in a meaningful game before, Spillane is comfortable in their ability to work together at a high level, as he told reporters yesterday during a Zoom interview session.
“We haven’t played many in-game snaps together, but we’ve been working together for the past two years. I know and understand his style of communication and his play”, he said about Bush. “I think we feed in well with each other; I think we work well together. We’ve been able to do that off the field, so now it’s just [about how it’s] going to translate to taking our communication styles and meshing them together to get the best message to our teammates”.
While Bush is the pedigree guy, a second-generation first-round pick out of a prestige school, Spillane comes from a different background, even if out of the same state. Undrafted out of Western Michigan in 2018, he was unable to stick with the Tennessee Titans after originally signing with them, though he did see two games on the 53-man roster.
The following year, the Steelers signed him to a Reserve/Futures contract, and they kept him on the practice squad initially. Mid-season, rookie linebacker Ulysees Gilbert III was placed on the Reserve/Injured List with a back injury, creating the door for Spillane that he would wedge open for himself to rise to this stage.
Climbing from special teamer in the back half of the 2019 season to top backup last year, his time as spot starter in 2020 helped give the coaching staff comfort this offseason in parting with eight-year veteran Vince Williams, who has been primarily a starter for the past several seasons.
There is an expectation that they can get at least roughly equivalent play out of the buck position from Spillane this year, so if Bush comes back healthy, it should provide the defense with a major upgrade over the middle in comparison to what they had to deal with for most of last season.