Every player who isn’t a clear, surefire first-round draft pick should have a college coach like Robert Spillane had. He had P.J. Fleck for his first three years with the Broncos before Tim Lester took over his final season. And they let him know in no uncertain terms how important special teams would be to his future.
“I was told in college that special teams isn’t the most glorious job, but it’s the best thing you can do to be a good teammate”, he recently told Teresa Varley for the Pittsburgh Steelers’ website. “Good teammates are consistently dominant on special teams because they want to go out there and they love what they do. That has stuck with me. You can tell when someone loves what they do when they play on special teams because it’s for their teammates. You are not going to get the most glory, but you are going to make plays and change the outcome of the game with how you play”.
Originally signed by the Tennessee Titans as an undrafted free agent in 2018, he only spent two games on the active roster with them, but he logged 20 snaps on special teams. A year later, after he was promoted from the practice squad to the Steelers’ 53-man roster, he logged 168 special teams snaps in just eight games, recording 11 tackles.
“If you don’t have a role on special teams you will never get that opportunity to show if you can play offense or defense”, Spillane said. “I knew I was going to do whatever it took to become close with the special teams coordinator, dominate during the special teams period, do everything I can off the field to make sure I am not negatively impacting my chances to go out there and play”.
He carved his teeth on special teams, but it always becomes less prominent if you’re a starter, and he did spend more than half of his time healthy in 2020 in the starting lineup, as Devin Bush was injured in the fifth game.
As a consequence, Spillane only logged 156 snaps on special teams last year versus 377 on defense. And it goes without saying that, should he win a starting job this season now that Vince Williams is gone, he won’t be racking up the special teams snaps in 2021, either.
But as head coach Mike Tomlin likes to say, how you play on special teams is often a pretty good indicator for how you would play on offense or defense. And it is about being a good teammate. Back in 2009, when the team was having a rash of special teams woes and Tomlin had to put starters on the unit, Brett Keisel, a former special teams veteran, said the job was about ‘want-to’.
Spillane certainly has the want-to. He now wants to bring that want-to on a full-time basis to the defensive side of the ball. And he may well get that chance, at least in this upcoming season.