While Robert Spillane undeniably made the most of his opportunity as “next man up”, compiling 45 tackles, four tackles for a loss, a pair of sacks, four pass breakups, three quarterback hurries, and a pick six in seven starts, Keith Butler and Mike Tomlin were undeniably limited in their schematic flexibility in the absence of their emerging star middle linebacker, former top ten pick Devin Bush. In fact, Bush appeared to have taken the next step both in the block shedding department as well as becoming an elite coverage defender, compiling 26 tackles, two quarterback hits, a sack, and three pass deflections across his 4 ½ games before sustaining a season ending ACL injury.
Although Bush was notably impactful in his 15 starts as a rookie in 2019, his improvement in coverage early in his second year was evident, serving as the team’s primary defender on opposing backs in the man coverage centric scheme, where his coverage ability and range allowed him to simultaneously eliminate running backs in the passing game while providing an effective contain on potential quarterback scrambles. Moreover, Bush’s ability to survive in matchups against opposing receivers and tight ends proved invaluable to a Pittsburgh defense that remains unwilling to travel it’s boundary cornerbacks. In fact, while Devin White’s amazing postseason run played out this winter, I came to the conclusion that while not producing the same impact as T.J. Watt or Minkah Fitzpatrick, Devin Bush returns as Pittsburgh’s most important player in deploying a defensive scheme capable of frustrating and erasing modern offenses. Today, we’ll specifically be looking into Devin Bush’s ability to leave his imprint on the game in three distinct roles, first in various zone coverage assignments, followed by his ability as a man coverage defender and green dog rusher.
Devin Bush in Zone Coverage
While the Pittsburgh Steelers defense has opted to deploy man coverage at some of the highest rates in the NFL since the acquisition of Minkah Fitzpatrick early in the 2019 season, Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler have some great zone coverage designs largely predicated on intricate pre snap disguises and post snap rotations. While zone coverage traditionally requires less athleticism from linebackers than man coverage schemes where they can be isolated, in the modern NFL, offenses can and will isolate and attack weak links of a defense regardless of scheme. Thus, Devin Bush’s range, ball skills, patience, and solid open field tackling allows him to close off the intermediate middle of the field and rally from sideline to sideline to limit pass catchers yards after the catch, two areas where the Steelers defense was repeatedly exposed in his absence this past season.
Below, in their road Week One matchup against the New York Giants, Devin Bush is deployed as a hook/curl zone defender in an inverted Tampa 2 scheme, with Mike Hilton rotating to occupy a deep ½ opposite of Terrell Edmunds, and Minkah Fitzpatrick coming down to serve as the Tampa seam defender. At the snap, Bush patiently gains depth in his backpedal, scanning the field for oncoming receivers before triggering downhill to carry a shallow crosser. As the shallow crosser stops over the ball, Bush briefly gains depth to force the underneath throw before rallying downhill in a hurry to secure the solo stop shy of the sticks. Note that due to Bush’s superior athleticism, he can simultaneously halt quarterbacks from trying intermediate throws in his direction, while still having the speed to rally and stop checkdowns with minimal yards after the catch, a rare skill set even in the modern game.
Later in the same game, with the Giants facing a third and long situation, Bush is once again deployed as a hook/curl defender, this time gaining far more depth in the Steelers Cover 3 zone. After working to the sticks and occupying Daniel Jones’ first middle of the field read, Bush closes like a missile on a Saquon Barkley dump off to the flat, coming from beyond the hash to halt the talented runner well short of the sticks with a picture perfect form tackle. An underrated aspect of his impact on the defense, Bush’s ability to flow sideline to sideline in a hurry and tackle effectively in the open field allows him to clean up cutbacks forced by his teammates, an area where the team repeatedly struggled down the stretch, most notably in losses to Washington and Buffalo.
Merely a week later, in the teams home opener against the Denver Broncos, Bush is once again deployed as a hook/curl defender with the team in a Cover 3 zone on third down and long. Bush, aligned to the nub tight end, once again gains depth patiently while reading his keys before triggering on an underneath throw to Noah Fant, ultimately beating the tight end across the field quickly to assume outside leverage and force Fant to stop his feet, allowing for pursuit to arrive and stop the play well short of the sticks.
With the Steelers pass rush standing alone atop the league, teams often opted to attack the Steelers with mesh concepts and quick game to get their quarterbacks into rhythm and get their athletes the ball in space. Thus, Devin Bush undeniably serves as the key to this defense’s ability to reach its ceiling atop the NFL, as he has the speed, awareness, and unrelenting motor to render an opposing offense’s lateral passing attack useless.
Devin Bush in Man Coverage
In my humble opinion, the Washington and Buffalo losses this past season exposed the limitations of Avery Williamson, Vince Williams, Marcus Allen, and the remaining linebacker core in their inability to effectively match running backs out of the backfield in man coverage following a knee injury which sidelined Robert Spillane. While it goes without saying that Devin Bush has proven to be elite in his ability to match backs out of the backfield thus far in his career, 2020 saw him take a crucial next step, gaining the ability to effectively disguise his assignment with pre snap alignments.
Below against the Giants, Bush aligns as a blitzer in the C-gap, briefly bluffing a blitz before opening to carry Saquon Barkley on a wheel route out of the backfield, effortlessly matching the back toward the sideline and causing Jones to throw the ball harmlessly to the turf. While his assignment appears simple, routes like this one below and option routes became an Achilles Heel for this Steelers defense in Bush’s absence, limiting their flexibility to disguise their coverages down the stretch.
Below from a Week Two home matchup against the Denver Broncos, Devin Bush aligns over the center pre snap in a man coverage assignment on former teammate Nick Vannett in the Steelers Cover 1 Nickel blitz scheme. At the snap, Bush opens toward the sideline, staying square while widening patiently with the tight end before breaking efficiently to blanket the tight end toward the sideline and secure the pass breakup. While the official would ultimately determine that Bush had arrived slightly early resulting in a holding penalty, Bush’s fluidity in coverage is readily on display on this rep, a trait which allows him to function properly in a Steelers scheme which forces him into tough matchups against tight ends and receivers.
With the Broncos threatening to take the lead deep in the Steelers red zone, down 26-21 and facing a third and short situation, the Steelers opt to deploy a Cover 1 set accompanied by a five man pressure scheme. With the Steelers in match man coverage, also known as “banjo”, Devin Bush, aligned over the left tackle, is assigned to match the first in breaking receiver shallow inside in man coverage. Thus, Bush opens to match the bunch set, identifying his receiver and staying square before stepping up to match the receiver across the formation and finish cleanly, getting his left hand in the receivers pocket to force an incompletion, and a subsequent fourth down attempt in which the Broncos would once again be halted.
While his speed is readily apparent, Bush’s football IQ, patience, and comfortability allow him to stay square in coverage, making it much tougher for receivers to beat him across his face in comparison to the teams remaining options at the position, who are far more likely to be caught on their heels and thus unable to match advanced route runners.
Devin Bush as a Hug Blitzer(also referred to as Green Dog Rusher)
Perhaps Devin Bush’s most impactful role in the Steelers defense came as a “hug blitzer”, also referred to as a “green dog rusher”, in which he blitzes toward the running back, operating in a man coverage assignment on the back. However, if it is determined that the running back is staying in as a pass protector, the green dog rusher is free to blitz the quarterback. With Bush’s combination of coverage skill, closing speed, and football IQ, he was able to effectively blanket opposing running backs and contain quarterback scrambles simultaneously throughout the duration of his 2020 campaign. Moreover, after he went down, the team struggled mightily to contain opposing quarterbacks as they escaped the pocket, most notably in a Monday Night loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, led by known speedster Ryan Finley(this still hurts to say).
Below in a Week 3 matchup against the Houston Texans, deployed as a man coverage defender on the running back as part of a Cover 1 Nickel blitz scheme, Bush flows down the line, diagnosing that his man is staying in to block before scraping to occupy a quick throwing window to the fullback in the flat. The second Deshaun Watson breaks contain, Bush immediately plants and closes downhill in a hurry, taking a perfect angle to trap Watson along the sideline, and combining with Bud Dupree for the timely sack. Note how on a single play, Bush’s athleticism allows him to take away Watson’s first read, forcing him to scramble outside of the pocket, before screaming downhill to clean up the scramble drill well behind the line of scrimmage against one of the games most elusive quarterbacks.
Below, serving as a man coverage defender on Austin Hooper in a Cover 1 scheme, Devin Bush waits patiently for Hooper to release before realizing that the Browns are in max protection, and looping free around the edge to drop Baker Mayfield as he stepped up in the pocket. Once again, note Bush’s athleticism, with the ability to take a wide path around the offensive line before changing direction effortlessly to drop Mayfield in his tracks forcing the third and long. In their Week 17 matchup against Mayfield, the quarterback had a field day escaping the pocket and making the defense pay for their lack of an effective sideline to sideline contain man.
Finally, later in the game, serving as a man coverage defender on the back as part of a Cover 1 robber scheme, Bush blitzes downhill contacting the back, before diagnosing Mayfield breaking contain and rolling to his right. Bush shows impactable athleticism and football IQ, abandoning his man who drifted to the opposite flat, instead flushing Mayfield back and toward the sideline, forcing an off-balance throw which would fall harmlessly to the turf on third down.
Thus, on a single play, Bush halted Mayfield’s checkdown at the line of scrimmage, impeding his path out of the backfield before chasing Mayfield down and forcing him to throw an off balance pass of his back foot, and preventing him from connecting with an open Odell Beckham Jr. in the scramble drill.
Thus, while the Steelers pass rush continued to flourish in Bush’s absence, the defense was exposed down the stretch in two areas, containing running backs out of the backfield and containing opposing quarterbacks within the pocket, two areas where Devin Bush specializes. Thus, while many focus on the losses of Mike Hilton, Steven Nelson, and Bud Dupree,
I have the utmost confidence that if Devin Bush can remain healthy for a full 17 game season(I know, it still sounds strange to me too), the Steelers defense can not only match, but potentially improve on its performance in the 2020 season, potentially making the team more of a threat in the playoffs than they were this past season.