The Pittsburgh Steelers sure played quite a few of their inside linebackers against the Minnesota Vikings as Devin Bush, Joe Schobert, Marcus Allen and even rookie Buddy Johnson all logged defensive snaps in that Thursday night road loss. On Sunday, the Steelers will host the Tennessee Titans at Heinz Field, and based on what defensive coordinator Keith Butler said on Thursday during his weekly press conference, it sounds like we could be poised to see as many as five inside linebackers play in that home contest.
For starters, Butler gave every indication on Thursday that inside linebacker Robert Spillane will see the field on Sunday against the Titans, assuming he’s healthy enough to play.
“I’m glad to get him back,” Butler said on Thursday of Spillane, who has missed the last two games with a knee injury and COVID. “He’s a very physical player and we need that physicality in our defense. And he’s going to play for us when he gets back. We’re going to rotate some people in and out, you know, and try to put the best foot forward as we can.”.
Spillane really made a name for himself last season during the Steelers’ road game against the Titans. More specifically, Spillane’s hit on Titans running back Derrick Henry during a goal-to-goal play was the talk of the game after it had ended. The Titans will likely want to test the Steelers’ porous run defense on Sunday, so it would make sense for Spillane to log some snaps in that game at the expense of either Schobert or Bush.
Speaking of Bush, Butler was also asked about the team’s former first-round draft pick on Thursday. To set the stage, Butler was asked to comment on if he thinks Bush is making some progress in his development, on the heels of the young linebacker saying a few days ago that he feels that he is.
“Yeah, I think he has in terms of his recognition and stuff like that,” Butler said of Bush. “I think it’s always – experience always creates confidence. And what I mean by that, the more you play, the more confident you get in terms of what they’re doing and how you’re going to react to what they’re doing within the scheme that we’re playing. And that’s probably what’s happening with Devin. You know, in terms of, you know, his knee and stuff like that, I don’t know. Only he knows that. We hope for him to get better. He needs very much for him to get better for us to be any good. But you know, we’re still going play other people, we’re not just going to play him all the time.”
So, in so many words, don’t expect Bush to play every snap against the Titans on Sunday. In fact, he might play even less on Sunday against the Titans than he has the last several weeks, if Spillane is indeed healthy enough to return to action.
In addition to Schobert, Bush, and Spillane all seemingly poised to see playing time against the Titans, Butler surely made it sound like on Thursday that the plan is to get both Allen and Johnson some playing time on Sunday as well.
“It never hurts to have different people going in there,” Butler said on Thursday when asked about Allen and Johnson possibly playing some moving forward. “And competition, there’s nothing wrong with competition, it’s always good. Always will be good. So, we’re going to put them in there, create a competitive situation if we can.”
Based on everything that Butler said on Thursday, might we see six inside linebackers dressed for Sunday’s game against the Titans? The team usually only dresses five inside linebackers at the most, so if Schobert, Bush, Spillane, Allen, and Johnson all dress on Sunday, that might result in Ulysees Gilbert III not getting a helmet. Gilbert, however, is a core special teams player, so there’s that to consider.
Whatever the Steelers do at inside linebacker on Sunday, they need to start getting much better play out of that position group in their final four games if they want any shot at making the playoffs. The team’s defense has been beyond atrocious at times throughout the season, especially against the run. And while the Titans won’t have their beast of a running back in Henry on Sunday, Butler still expects the Tennessee offense to run quite a bit at Heinz Field.
Their head coach is a defensive guy, defensive guys like to run the ball if they can,” Butler said of Titans head coach Mike Vrabel. “And if I was looking at us, what would you do? I’d run the ball too. So, we’re probably going to get that along with some play action passes and stuff like that. So, we’ve got to be prepared for that.”