Robert Spillane came out of the 2019 season with the Pittsburgh Steelers as something of an also-ran. A former college free agent who spent half the season on the practice squad that year, he was called up mid-year due to injury to play on special teams, and he did that.
He did it well enough that he got looks in practice, and the offensive linemen grew tired of his full-steam ahead approach. Ultimately, he wound up as the team’s top backup inside linebacker last year, which resulted in him logging a lot of playing time when Devin Bush went down with a torn ACL in game five.
Up to that point, he had only logged a whole eight snaps on defense together with the Steelers’ former first-round draft pick, which came in the season opener on a long drive, for which he was spelling Vince Williams. He’s looking forward to playing with Bush more.
“I’m just so excited to be able to play next to him”, he told reporters earlier today. “I didn’t get very many snaps next to him at all last year. “We’ve talked this offseason, our abilities will match up well, and we communicate well. We’re good teammates to each other, so I’m very excited to get onto the field with him”.
The irony is that the vast majority of Spillane’s playing time last year not only came at Bush’s expense due to the injury, but also, of course, at Bush’s mack linebacker position. Should they field time together this year, he would be playing at the buck. But he explains to reporters that there isn’t much distinction between the two in their system, anyway.
“Last year when [Bush] went down, I came in for him, directly at his position”, Spillane reminded. “It looks like he might be back at that position and I’ll be playing our other linebacker position, which is very similar. The responsibilities change slightly, but it’s not anything that’s so different of a position. They’re pretty interchangeable in our defense”.
Traditionally, the mack in a 3-4 defense tends to be the more athletic player, the playmaker that the defensive line and even the buck works to get free to make plays, whereas the buck is often the aggressor who takes on blocks, and frequently, also calls the signals.
As the game continues to evolve, the lines often blur between comparable positions. Not just the buck and mack linebacker, but also the strong and free safety. Minkah Fitzpatrick just earlier this week talked about how his and Terrell Edmunds’ roles generally overlap as well.
But no matter where you’re playing, you can’t coach athleticism, and that’s what sets Bush apart. That’s also what they lacked on defense when he was gone. It’s no wonder that not just Spillane, but everybody else, is excited for the opportunity to get him back on the field and play with him again, regardless of where everyone is lined up.