2021 Training Camp Battles: Starting Buck Linebacker

Vince Williams and Robert Spillane

With training camp just around the corner, it’s time to turn our focus on what is going on within each position, and on the roster as a whole. Over the course of the next few weeks, we will be taking a closer look at some of the roster battles that we expect to see unfold over the course of training camp as the Pittsburgh Steelers prepare for the start of the 2021 season.

Unlike last season, which was carried out through a pandemic, things should return much to normal this year, which should help provide us with clearer insights into where people stand. The return of the preseason in particular is a crucial window into operations that we lacked a year ago.

Position: Inside Linebacker

Up for Grabs: Starting Job

In the Mix: Robert Spillane, Vince Williams, Buddy Johnson

While the team hasn’t exactly stated this outright, the assumption since Vince Williams was first released was that Robert Spillane would be the Steelers’ starting buck linebacker next to a returning Devin Bush.

Does the return of Williams change that? Beat writers observed that Spillane looked like he would be the starter during OTAs and minicamp, but Williams wasn’t even really at OTAs, it seems, and he doesn’t need to be on the field at this time of year.

We will learn a lot more about what the Steelers’ intentions are later this month and into training camp as to whether or not Spillane is the clear starter or if Williams will be in competition to retain his starting role, or otherwise, how involved he will be.

Williams has logged 69 starts over 121 career games and 3,648 defensive snaps. In contrast, Spillane has started seven of 22 games, logging 378 defensive snaps. Williams very nearly has 10 times the paying experience.

It’s very common for younger, less-experienced players to see a lot more time on the field in the spring, with veterans like Williams on the sidelines observing. In James Harrison’s final training camps, he hardly participated at all. Yet, barring his last season, he continued to play a crucial, often starting role.

There was nothing in Williams’ play last season that indicated that he was no longer capable of playing at the same level that he has throughout his career. Spillane has shown promise to be a starter, but not so much that alternatives can’t be sought.

And then there’s the rookie factor. It’s rather unlikely that Buddy Johnson has much of a shot of opening the season as the starter next to Bush, but he could certainly gradually earn a defensive role over time, and possibly even work his way into the starting lineup as early as next season.

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