Since Day One of training camp, the Pittsburgh Steelers have found a way to get their top three linebackers, Myles Jack, Devin Bush, and Robert Spillane on the field. Throughout the summer, the group rotated with the 1’s. Jack and Bush are the starters to kick off the regular season but Spillane has carved out a role as the team’s primary dime linebacker. Speaking with reporters Tuesday, defensive coordinator Teryl Austin explained why Spillane is the team’s choice in those moments.
“Rob is a really good communicator, really sharp,” he told reporters via a team transcript. “I think he has a really good understanding of the pass game. I think the one thing he gives us is communication on third down which is important to make sure we’re all in the right position .We really like the way he does that and the way he takes charge when he does go out there.”
It’s a more quality answer than what Keith Butler had to offer last year, explaining the team liked Spillane’s ability to blitz despite rarely ever using him in that capacity. Spillane is a trusted veteran the team’s been high on, watching him go from practice squader to special teamer to rotational defensive player. Through two weeks, Spillane has played 48.3% of the team’s dime snaps, though that number would be a lot higher had he not missed the back half of the Week One game against the Cincinnati Bengals. In last Sunday’s loss to the New England Patriots, Spillane played all six of the Steelers’ dime snaps.
While Austin praised Spillane’s communication skills, his coverage skills are a little more questionable. An instinctive linebacker, he still lacks the foot speed to turn and run with players, especially in underneath man coverage. To his credit, he carried a WR down the seam on Minkah Fitzpatrick’s interception in Week 2 and while Devin Bush is more athletic, Spillane is arguably just as good if not better in coverage. For the year, he’s been targeted twice, allowing two receptions for 16 yards, one of which was a third down conversion. Last year, he was miserable in coverage, allowing 87.5% of his targets to be caught and a 103.2 QB rating against, the worst of any Steelers’ linebacker.
Perhaps the best reason the Steelers have for playing Spillane in those moments is the chance to give Myles Jack a breather instead of making him a literal everydown player. But Jack is the team’s best inside linebacker and it’s fair to wonder if the Steelers will make a change sometime later in the season. Spillane and the Steelers will face a ripe challenge Thursday night against the Cleveland Browns, a team whose notoriously given Pittsburgh fits with their tight ends and empty formations.