After Devin Bush went down with a season ending ACL tear, the Steelers were forced to turn to a relative unknown at the thin Mack linebacker position, elevating Robert Spillane, a special teamer with just eight prior NFL tackles to his credit, into a full time starting role. Over his next seven starts before going down with a knee injury of his own, Spillane helped steady the defense, compiling 45 tackles, 4 tackles for losses, 2 sacks, a fumble recovery, four passes defended, and one interception which he took back 33 yards for six.
Entering his 2021 campaign, with an inside linebacker core which returns an every down starter in Devin Bush, a long time stalwart in Vince Williams, a talented rookie in Buddy Johnson, a project in Marcus Allen, and an often injured yet talented option in UG3, many might question where Spillane fits into the rotation. In an ideal scenario, I believe that Devin Bush will start alongside Vince Williams in base with Robert Spillane subbing in for Williams in Nickel and whoever emerges as a Dimebacker playing alongside Bush in Dime. Today, we’ll be looking into Robert Spillane’s coverage work in three distinct roles from this past season, and explaining why he could thrive in a Nickel role in his upcoming 2021 campaign.
Robert Spillane in Man Coverage
After entering the game cold following an injury suffered by Devin Bush in the teams Week 5 blowout victory against the division rival Cleveland Browns, Spillane left his imprint on the game almost immediately. Aligned as the middle linebacker below, operating out of a man coverage assignment on tight end Austin Hooper, Spillane steps up on the play fake before diagnosing screen, beating Jedrick Wills block to the outside with speed, and leveling Hooper at the catch point for his first career tackle for a loss. Note here how Spillane reads his keys and reacts without hesitation, a rare and promising trait for an inexperienced linebacker with limited NFL snaps under his belt, particularly in coverage where young linebackers can appear tentative at times.
Two weeks later on a third down attempt in Baltimore, Spillane follows J.K. Dobbins into the slot, assuming a man coverage matchup against the shifty back in the Steelers Cover 2 man scheme. At the snap, Spillane patiently gives ground, working hard to stay square with inside leverage before breaking on the pivot route, closing in phase, and getting his right arm across to bat the ball away for an impressive pass breakup.
This is where Spillane’s true value to the defense reveals itself, as alongside Devin Bush, he gives the team another versatile defender, capable of covering running backs, tight ends, and occasionally wide receivers in isolated matchups, allowing Butler and Tomlin to be far more multiple and aggressive on possession downs.
In what was arguably his best game of the season before he went down with a knee injury, a Week 13 home loss against the Washington Football Team, Spillane left his imprint all over the game as a hug blitzer and man coverage defender. Below, operation out of a man coverage matchup on Isiah Wright in the Steelers Cover 2 man under scheme, Spillane once again stays patient, staying square with inside leverage, before trailing the receiver on the crossing route and finishing through the hands with physicality to secure the pass breakup and force a third and long attempt.
Spillane’s ability to stay square against speedier receivers is a rare trait at the linebacker position and keeps him consistently in phase to compete and contest at the catch point on underneath and intermediate targets.
One week earlier in Week 12 against Baltimore, Spillane produced what might have been his most impressive man coverage rep of the season, a perfectly communicated switch out of Cover 2 man to force the Ravens into a third and long situation. Aligned in a man coverage assignment over the slot receiver to the trips side, Spillane gains depth, opening toward the sideline before receiving an in call from Joe Haden, flipping his hips efficiently, closing on the slant route, and finishing at the catch point with a violent tackle on Hollywood Brown, giving the speedy receiver no opportunity to create yards after the catch.
Although players are always taught to stick with their assignment no matter the circumstances in man coverage, the ability to identify switch routes and effectively pass them off through mid play communication is a veteran skill, and an impressive one for an inexperienced player to display early in his career.
Robert Spillane in Zone Coverage
While Spillane’s man coverage capabilities are certainly the primary reason that myself and the coaching staff identify his value as a sub package defender, he has also proven to be a rangy zone coverage defender with great open field tackling skills. Just before half in their Week 5 matchup against Cleveland, working as a hook/curl zone defender in the Steelers Cover 3 scheme, Spillane opens up into a crossover run at the snap, getting to the sticks before squaring up and scanning the field.
Upon seeing Baker Mayfield pull the pin on a deep crosser to Austin Hooper, Spillane flies out of his break and arrives at the catch point with violence, making Hooper work through contact for the contested reception short of the sticks. Spillane’s ability to seamlessly transition from his crossover run back to balance and quickly into a break shows how effective his functional movement skills are for the position, which combined with his ability to trust his keys, allows him to finish around the football on most targets coming his way.
In what was arguably the most memorable play he made this season, a 33 yard pick six to kick off a Week 8 matchup in Baltimore, Spillane, once again operating from a hook/curl zone assignment out of the Steelers Cover 3 scheme, was able to take advantage of a pressure influenced throw by Lamar Jackson. After shifting over to replace Vince Williams, who was designated part of the rush scheme, Spillane stays square, eying Lamar Jackson, before breaking to undercut the quarterback’s checkdown to James Proche, and taking it back 33 yards for the games first score.
On the rep, Spillane’s football IQ is on display, as he effectively mid points both of Jackson’s checkdown options, allowing him to key the quarterback’s eyes while staying in phase to play the checkdown while also affecting the throwing window behind him.
One of Spillane’s best traits in zone coverage is his spatial awareness, particularly when defending the sticks on possession downs, a trait he shows on this rep, serving as a hook/curl defender in a Cover 3 scheme from the teams Week 12 matchup against the Ravens. At the snap, Spillane gains depth quickly, getting to the sticks before coming to balance and scanning the field.
Upon seeing RG3 pull the pin on a ball curl short of the sticks, Spillane breaks downhill rapidly, closing to arrive at the catch point with a powerful hit, and dropping the receiver well short of the markers. Notice how efficient Spillane is transitioning in and out of his break with no wasted movement, as it is rare to see a linebacker so smooth in their pedal and drive motion, even at the NFL level.
Robert Spillane as a Hug Blitzer
Perhaps my most anticipated potential outcome of pairing both Bush and Spillane together in Nickel centers around the idea that the defense can excel in their Cover 1 man scheme with two elite hug blitzers on the field. While his work in coverage was undeniably impressive in all facets, Spillane was beginning to wreak havoc as a hug blitzer before going down with a knee injury midway through a Week 13 contest against the Washington Football Team.
On the rep below, Spillane, operating in a man coverage assignment on Peyton Barber in a Cover 1 scheme, diagnoses the play fake, identifies Barber assuming his role as a pass protector, and inserts unblocked through the C-gap to level Alex Smith before he could process anything beyond his first read. As I’ve noted throughout this piece, Spillane’s ability to trust his keys and react instantaneously makes him particularly effective as a hug blitzer, where his ability to immediately read and react allows him to knife into the backfield before the protection can adjust to the extra rusher.
Later in the game, on the rep in which he would ultimately sustain an injury which kept him out the remainder of the regular season, and sent the Steelers defense on a downward spiral, Spillane once again jumps off the screen as a hug blitzer. This time, once again operating in a man coverage matchup on Peyton Barber, this time to an under center formation, Spillane stays patient on the play fake before seeing Barber pick up the blitzing Vince Williams and immediately looping unblocked through the vacated C-gap, this time getting his left hand in the passing lane to force Alex Smith’s pass to fall harmlessly to the turf.
Although I certainly have my reservations about Spillane becoming an every down starter next to Devin Bush, namely his lack of play strength, which often causes backs to fall forward on his tackle attempts and makes it tough for him to hold the point of attack against offensive lineman, an opportunity to play in the Nickel in 2021 could allow Spillane to flourish. Particularly in third and short to medium situations, in which teams love to attack the sticks, the Steelers could frustrate teams with simple Cover 1 robber schemes, leaving Spillane or Bush as a hug blitzer on every rep that isn’t taken out of an empty set.
I keep coming back to Tampa’s Super Bowl run this past season, but if Bush and Spillane can provide the Steelers similar coverage ability, Tomlin and Butler will be able to be much more multiple in their scheme, and much harder to punish for their refusal to move their corners. Needless to say, I am excited to see what the 2021 season holds for Robert Spillane and the Steelers defense, as I think it might see far less of a drop off than some are anticipating, particularly on possession downs, where they finished 6th as a unit in 2020.