“Next man up” is an evergreen football concept, from the WPIAL-area high school programs up through the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sundays. Proof of that came in Week 2 for the Steelers, when Devin Bush and Joe Haden were ruled out before the team’s game against the Las Vegas Raiders, and then Tyson Alualu and T.J. Watt were lost to injuries during the contest.
The linebacker position was the only level of Pittsburgh’s defense to undergo a pair of losses, first to Bush as the team’s top middle linebacker, and then to Watt, the team’s top rusher off the edge. The player who stepped in to inherit many of Bush’s snaps in the middle, Robert Spillane, was one of many players asked following the game about all the injuries and their effects on the team.
“You know, it’s really the next man up mentality, and they preached that from day zero here. And that’s a creed we live by,” Spillane said. “Just gotta be ready when your number’s called. Guys love that opportunity when they get the chance to step up. So it’s all about making plays.”
Spillane, as he did last season, made the most of an opportunity presented him, leading the Steelers with 12 tackles in the 26-17 loss to the Raiders. A team-high eight of them were solo stops, and he also had one tackle behind the line. It was the type of performance that had him projected as one of the team’s two starters at the position throughout this offseason and much of training camp, and has him set to continue taking the field as a starter should Bush miss additional games.
The “next man up” concept applies to all players evenly. Even All-Pros and the most elite defenders in the game like T.J. Watt. Much of the focus among the injuries is on him, with his impact felt across the entirety of the Steelers’ defense. It leaves players like fellow linebackers Spillane and Joe Schobert and edge rushers like Alex Highsmith and Melvin Ingram picking up the slack.
Pittsburgh didn’t stop defending the run well, allowing barely over two yards a carry to the Raiders in the game, and got a sack out of Ingram. But there was a difference when Watt left the field, one Pittsburgh will focus on minimizing should that absence extend beyond a half of football against Vegas.
“Anytime you lose the best player in defensive football in the NFL, there’s going to be a drop-off,” Spillane said. “There’s nobody like T.J Watt. Melvin and Alex are two very high-end outside linebackers who do a good job of getting consistent pass rush. So I know that they’ll be in the lab working, getting better at their craft every day.”
Through post-game injury updates, only Alualu among the Steelers’ injured is guaranteed out for the Steelers’ next game, suffering an ankle injury that, according to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette’s Gerry Dulac, will end his 2021 season. Watt, Bush, and Haden all remain possibilities to play for the Steelers next week, against the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday at 1 p.m.