Could veteran inside linebacker Robert Spillane really work his way into the starting lineup due to a strong training camp? It sure sounds that way, according to first-year defensive coordinator Teryl Austin.
Speaking with 93.7 The Fan’s Jeff Hathhorn Thursday morning prior to practice at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Austin was asked about the rotation at inside linebacker on the first-team defense featuring Spillane, Devin Bush and Myles Jack, with Spillane rotating heavily with Bush, who is coming off of a rather poor 2021 season overall.
While that rotation is by design, according to Austin and head coach Mike Tomlin, Spillane’s play could be forcing the Steelers’ hand, Austin said to Hathhorn, stating that Spillane is putting himself into the conversation to start at inside linebacker on Sept. 11 on the road at Cincinnati to open the season.
“Robert Spillane has put himself in the conversation. It’s a heck of a competition,” Austin said to Hathhorn, according to audio via 93.7 The Fan. “If we were trotting starters out today, they would be Jack and Bush. But Spillane is a close third.”
So far in training camp, Spillane has received a healthy dose of snaps with the first-team defense while rotating with Jack and Bush. That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise after Spillane played in a career-high 14 games (four starts) and recorded a career-high 56 tackles while playing 36% of the defensive snaps and 61% of the special teams snaps.
Spillane is arguably the best run defender at inside linebacker on the Steelers. He plays with physicality coming downhill, most famously making a huge hit on Tennessee’s Derrick Henry at the goal line a few years ago to stop the star running back in his tracks, which few have done since the came into the NFL.
Though he’s had some issues in pass coverage at the inside linebacker spot, he’s a solid spot-drop defender who reads the quarterback’s eyes well and often finds himself around the football.
Ideally, Spillane provides the Steelers with a solid No. 3 option behind Bush and Jack, but based on his strong play in camp so far, he could push someone like Bush into a reserve role, which wouldn’t be much of a surprise overall. Still, there’s a lot of football left between now and Sept. 11 in Cincinnati, and a lot can change.
It’s certainly worth monitoring though, with Austin being so forthcoming, praising Spillane and stating outright that he’s in the conversation for the starting role in 2022.