In 2020, we started a new off season series to look at some players that were poised to have a breakout season. This is a look at those players who have been productive to this point in their careers but could be on the verge of busting out and getting more national recognition. Last year’s list included Diontae Johnson, Ray-Ray McCloud, Chukwuma Okorafor and Robert Spillane. This is a breakout candidate for the 2022 season.
Look back through the Steelers history and there is a long history of quality inside linebacker play. I don’t need to mention the names; you all know them very well. Like all positions it has evolved from being primarily a run stopper to a player having the have speed to cover receivers and even rush the passer. Since the unfortunate injury to Ryan Shazier in 2017 the Steelers have been hunting to find a good pairing to fill the inside positions.
Sean Spence got the first opportunity after Shazier to pair with the physical Vince Williams. He was followed by veteran Jon Bostic in 2018. In 2019, the Steelers went the uncommon route of trading up in the first round to take Michigan linebacker Devin Bush, Jr. Initially that combination of Williams and Bush was successful but the defensive scheme choices limited Williams usage shocking opting for Mark Barron more often. However, the early returns from Bush were promising.
To This Point
After the past two seasons it can be difficult to look back through the murky haze and remember the excitement of his rookie season. In a season that included a major injury to the starting quarterback and a .500 finish, Bush’s play was encouraging. He led the team in tackles, had two interceptions and broke up four passes. He forced a fumble and recovered four taking one back for a scoop and score.
His sophomore season he was back paired with Williams and the outlook was good initially. He played 100% of the snaps in the first four games and was being used as a blitzer more often (27 times in 4.5 games in 2020, 37 times in 16 games in 2019) getting a half sack in two separate games. He had already broken up three passes and his coverage was showing positive signs. A season ending injury in week five cut off his progression.
Eleven months after his injury, he was back in the starting lineup with his yet another running mate at the inside linebacker position, Joe Schobert. Statically he looked like he was back and ready to go in week one tallying ten tackles and forcing a fumble in a surprise win against Buffalo on the road. However, something wasn’t right.
Over the rest of the season he would tally just sixty-one more tackles over fourteen games including the playoff game. After averaging 6.8 tackles in his rookie season he averaged just 4.7 after the injury. He was tentative and did show any burst or aggressiveness to get to the hole. Something clearly wasn’t right. There could be plenty of reasons to question including mentally trusting in his knee, trust in teammates to do their job or even off the field preparation.
What Can Happen?
Self-Trust Restored – First and foremost there needs to be an agreement with his brain and his body that states, “We’re good, Bro.” He has stated that the mental aspect of the injury has been the hardest part for him. Being able to trust a previously injured part of the body that it is going to work properly under competitive circumstances is more difficult for some. The hope is enough time has passed and he has tested the knee enough that he can get back to reading and reacting to aggressively find the ball.
Jobs Will Be Done – It’s no secret the defensive line struggled last year. Holes in the middle allowed the defense to get gouged for rushing yards game after game. Hopefully the return of Tyson Alualu and possibly Stephon Tuitt will lead to better control of the line of scrimmage as well as keeping the linebackers clean of climbing offensive lineman allowing the second level defenders to flow and attack gaps to curtail the gains.
New Dance Partner – Williams, Barron, Schobert and Spillane all spent times playing next to Bush in his first three seasons. The Steelers signed Myles Jack to play alongside him in 2022. Just like with the defensive line doing their jobs so too must the linebackers. You can’t have two linebackers filling one gap and leaving another open. Everyone must know their role. Jack is a veteran with versatility against the run and pass and with Bush could form a very strong duo. The comradery and understanding between the two must form quickly.
Flores Effect – Adding a coach like Bryan Flores to the defensive side of the ball adds to the intrigue around Bush. He is a highly though of coach around the league and could prove to be big influence not just on the linebackers but on the whole defense. His voice could be one that gets through to Bush and gets him back on the right track that we saw in his rookie season or even better.
Contractual Motivation – The fifth option on his rookie contract was declined so 2022 is a contract year for Bush. I don’t know what motivates him and I’m not trying to say money is a motivator for him. For many players, they seem to play their best when they will be looking for a new contract in the near future. That contract could be elsewhere or back in Pittsburgh and the years and dollars attached to it will directly relate to his performance this season.
I think there are likely three options we could see this upcoming season.
- Option A is what we saw last year. A player that does not trust his body plays tentatively and is an afterthought within the defense.
- Option B, is the player we saw in 2019 as a rookie. A player who was always around the ball, produced turnovers and looked to be a good fit in the defense.
- Option C, is 2019 plus. Remember that was his rookie season. Players generally perform better after their rookie season. In the right situation with a good defensive line and compatibility with Jack we could see something better than we have seen before.
Recency bias will leave a lot of us with a bad taste in our mouths based on his play last season but there are a lot of positives pointing in his favor. The defense as a whole should be better. Jack is an improvement next to him. Another year from injury can’t hurt either. He knows he didn’t play well last year and that should be motivation enough to prove the doubters wrong. I expect a much better performance in 2022.