It’s not uncommon for a team to have one or two position groups hit hard due to availability issues over the course of a season. The Pittsburgh Steelers struggled to field quarterbacks in 2019, and that obviously didn’t work out too well. Last year, it was the inside linebackers whom they had a hard time keeping on the field.
Their budding star, 2019 first-round pick Devin Bush, suffered a torn ACL in the first half of the season. Five or six games toward the end of the year, the man who replaced him, Robert Spillane, would go down with a knee injury as well, and wouldn’t return until the postseason.
Then Vince Williams tested positive for COVID-19 and missed multiple games as a result. Add Ulysees Gilbert III to the Reserve/Injured List with recurring back issues, and you’re stuck with Avery Williamson, who Pittsburgh acquired via in-season trade just before the deadline, and Marcus Allen, who just converted from safety. It’s no wonder they had issues late in the year responding to coverage assignments against heavy sets.
“Part of it was, we were missing our two starting inside linebackers”, safety Minkah Fitzpatrick noted after practice today. “Devin and Spillane got hurt later in the season, and we had to bring in guys that didn’t understand the playbook as well, and teams attack that. They attacked those guys”.
“When you spread them out, you’re throwing to the three to the strength and the two to the weak side, and the guys that are there are linebackers”, he continued. “And the guys that we had there were new guys, guys that were new to the scheme, didn’t understand the concepts 110 percent”.
While Williamson was a veteran with starting experience, Pittsburgh really threw him into the fire. With the COVID-19 protocols in place, it was more difficult than it would normally be for somebody to get up to speed in a hurry. Then you have a young player without much experience trying to make a position switch in a year without an offseason and no preseason. One can hardly be surprised that the circumstances were less than ideal once they got to their fifth and sixth options.
Still, they are NFL players and they are on the field. It’s ultimately their job individually, and the team’s job as a whole, to get the job done. If they have a weakness, they have to mask it; they didn’t do that well enough. “Teams kind of exposed that, and again, going back to the execution thing, that’s all it was at the end of the day”, Fitzpatrick said.
This year, Bush should be back healthy sooner than later. Spillane and Williams are also back. Presumably, so are Gilbert and Allen, now with the opportunity to actually learn this offseason. Added to the mix is fourth-year Buddy Johnson, whose drafting Jerry Olsavsky admitted was in part a response to last season’s mayhem.