Even with the significant turnover on the roster from last season in comparison to the norm, there still aren’t that many unanswered questions going into this year for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but one of them concerns playing time percentages at the inside linebacker position.
Provided that he is healthy, it is assumed that Devin Bush will be an every-down player. But who will be lining up next to him most often? Vince Williams? Robert Spillane? Buddy Johnson? Even the coaching staff seems to see that as at least somewhat up in the air.
“I was real pleased with the way Robert played last year. I think he’ll play just as well or better this year than he did last year”, defensive coordinator Keith Butler told reporters earlier today, but he added that the preseason will determine a good deal, including “how much we’re gonna play Vince, how much we’re gonna play Robert”.
Williams is the fourth-longest-tenured player on the roster behind only Ben Roethlisberger, Cameron Heyward, and David DeCastro, originally drafted in the sixth round in 2013. He has come and gone in the starting lineup ever since Lawrence Timmons left in free agency, but has logged more snaps than anybody else at inside linebacker over the past four years.
The Steelers did release him earlier this offseason in a cap-saving move, before he chose to re-sign later on for a veteran-minimum salary. It was assumed while he was away from the team that Spillane would replace him, after he acquitted himself well over the course of seven starts last season.
And those snaps came alongside rather than in place of Williams, as he was filling in for Bush after he suffered his torn ACL. Spillane had logged just eight defensive snaps with the Steelers up to that point, but when he was on the field, he looked like he could play.
Over the course of 377 defensive snaps (along with 156 on special teams), he recorded 45 tackles on the season, including four for loss. He also managed two sacks, three quarterback hits, a fumble recovery, four passes defensed, and a pick-six against Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens.
The 25-year-old out of Western Michigan originally went undrafted and spent time with the Tennessee Titans as a rookie in 2018. He came over to the Steelers the following year, where he would spend the first half of the season on the practice squad before being called up due to injury and making his presence felt on special teams.
Following the departures of Mark Barron and Tyler Matakevich, he had the opportunity to enter the 2020 season as the top backup inside linebacker behind Bush and Williams. This year, he may well be in the starting lineup. But he will have to earn it over the course of the offseason.