In 2020, we started a new summer series to look at some players that were poised to have a breakout season. This is a look at those players who have been productive to this point in their careers but could be on the verge of busting out and getting more national recognition. Last year’s list included Terrell Edmunds, Cameron Sutton, Stephon Tuitt and James Washington. This is a breakout candidate for the 2021 season.
The 2020 season was not very kind to the Steelers linebackers. The Steelers went in to the season without a lot of depth and injuries took a toll. Devin Bush was injured in week six and lost for the season. Robert Spillane was injured in week 13 and missed 4 plus weeks. The Steelers were forced to trade for Avery Williamson in November to add depth.
In this offseason there were no major changes. Spillane was re-signed, Williams was cut and re-signed and they drafted Buddy Johnson. Not exactly sweeping changes. That adds up to a competition to see who will start next to Devin Bush (assuming he is fully health to start the season on time.
To This Point
The Steelers have in recent years made some nice finds through undrafted free agents or players cut by other team and Spillane fits in that category. Cut by Tennessee during the 2018 season the Steelers signed him in February in 2019.
Since being added in 2019 he spent most of the first half of the season on the practice squad before getting the call in week 10 vs the Los Angeles Rams where he played a whopping 29 special team snaps in his debut. He cut his teeth on special teams and was productive there with 10 tackles in 168 snaps over 8 games in 2019.
He was thrust into the starting lineup with the Devin Bush injury in week 6 and was the epitome of the “next man up” philosophy filling in well until he too was injured. He finished with 45 tackles, 39 solo with 4 tackles for a loss, 3 QB hits, 4, pass breakups, 2 sacks and 1 interception returned for touchdown. That is essentially over a 7 game stretch.
He was able to provide two major defensive highlights. The first being his pick six of Lamar Jackson that got the Steelers out in front in week 8 and finished with 11 tackles. The other was a major collision with his goal line stop of Derrick Henry. He put himself in a solid position for the upcoming season with his play.
What can happen?
Learn and Earn – Technically, there is going to be a competition for the ILB spot next to Devin Bush. Spillane, Williams and Johnson will provide a competition to watch in training camp which will be a benefit for the younger guys to get the nuances of the position. Spillane also has the benefit of learning for two years behind Williams who knows the defense inside and out. He had a taste of being the starter and will be hungry to earn that role.
Two Yutes – Spillane will be 26 in December and Bush will be 23 next month. It is possible that the two yutes…excuse me; two youths could be the starting linebackers in 2021. They’d be the youngest combined age tandem inside starters since Chad Brown (24) and Levon Kirkland (25) in 1994. And quite frankly we don’t know how they’ll play together. They played a total of eight snaps together last year. Spillane has already commented that he is confident in their communication with each other and sees their responsibilities as interchangeable. If that is they case, they Steelers will be able to use them similarly and make it more difficult for opposing offenses to make their pre snap reads.
Tasty Sample Size – Because of an injury to Bush, Spillane got his opportunity to more playing time and being a starter before his own injury in week 13. He was able to play at least 50% of the defensive snaps in 7 games from week 6 through week 12 with a high of 93% versus Dallas. He was able to perform well averaging 5.9 tackles a game which is comparable to what Bush has averaged in his young career (6.4). He did well in coverage per our charting allowing 56% completion percentage when targeted. He provided 3 pressures on 36 blitzes with 2 sacks which he felt is an area to improve. He proved to be up to task signaling he could be the starter this year.
So for 2021
This is an audition. Not just for the starting job in 2021 but going forward as well. He is playing on a one year deal and that can be a motivator for some players looking for that next contract.
Spillane will get plenty of competition but I think he will earn the starting role and could pair nicely with Bush. In a full season, I think he should end up in the 80+ tackle range and should be a slight upgrade in coverage. If he can learn to produce as a blitzer and get his pressures in to the double digits while adding 3 or 4 sacks he will solidify the defense as well as his future.