Answering when opportunity knocks

As quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had done in the immediate aftermath of a resounding victory over the Browns, inside linebacker Robert Spillane took to Zoom today and spoke first and foremost about injured inside linebacker Devin Bush.

"I just want to start this off with Devin, because Devin is a great teammate and a great person," Spillane said. "He's been one of the best teammates that I ever had. And if anyone knows Devin you know that he'll come back stronger than he's ever been before. I look forward to seeing him getting heathy on his road to recovery as we support him.

"The best way to support him is to leave where he left off."

Spillane picked up where Bush had left off upon suffering a knee injury with 2:28 left in the second quarter of Sunday's 38-7 victory over Cleveland.

The second-year pro inherited the helmet with the green dot and the defensive play-calling responsibilities.

Coming out of Western Michigan in 2018, Spillane hadn't been invited to the NFL Combine, hadn't been drafted (teammate Chukwuma Okorafor was selected by the Steelers in the third round that spring) and hadn't initially been offered a contract as an undrafted rookie.

Yet there was No. 41, playing 30 defensive snaps (53 percent) and making five tackles (one for a loss) and otherwise looking like a guy who belonged.

Spillane's grandfather, Johnny Lattner, who wore No. 14 for Notre Dame while winning the Heisman Trophy in 1953, would have no doubt approved.

Lattner was selected 7th overall by the Steelers in 1954 and scored a combined seven touchdowns in his lone season with the team.

Spillane, 6-foot-1 and 229 pounds, has believed in himself along, even as the NFL has collectively tried to convince him otherwise.

A little over two years ago he was potentially at the end of his football road after failing to land an invitation to training camp following a tryout with Minnesota.

"You know, you're getting worried," Spillane acknowledged. "And I'd tell myself, 'Give me a call and give me a real opportunity and I'm gonna go wherever I have to go and prove that I belong and prove that I will make your team better and I will be a good teammate, earn respect from my teammates and coaches and go from there.'"

Then he got a call from, of all teams, Tennessee, the team the Steelers are scheduled to visit this Sunday.

"I feel like I've come such a long way from those moments," Spillane continued. "I didn't have anything lined up for that next weekend (after the tryout with the Vikings fizzled). I didn't get a call until Thursday from the Tennessee Titans asking if I would get on a flight early the next morning to come out there for their rookie minicamp. I went out there and I knew what needed to be done to make that 90-man roster.

"I just put my head down and worked and I haven't stopped since."

Not that he hasn't been interrupted on occasion.

The Titans' tryout led to a spot on the 90-man roster, an invitation to training camp (Spillane intercepted Landry Jones in a preseason game in August of 2018 at Heinz Field), the Titans' practice squad and, eventually, a combined 20 snaps on special teams in mid-October games against the Ravens and at the Los Angeles Chargers.

From there, Spillane was eventually released and signed by the Steelers in February of 2019.

He was cut on Aug. 31, re-signed to the practice squad on Sept. 1, cut again on Sept. 24, re-signed to the practice squad on Oct. 8 and promoted to the 53-man roster on Nov. 5, when the Steelers placed inside linebacker Ulysees Gilbert on the Reserve/Injured list.

Now Spillane will be among those "called to step up," head coach Mike Tomlin said on Sunday, in Bush's absence, as will Gilbert and inside linebacker Marcus Allen.

"We'll put together a formula that will allow us to function in the interim, believe it," Tomlin emphasized.

Spillane's teammates are already believers.

"Rob's my guy, man, a guy that comes in each and every day, doesn't say much, really grinds," defensive back Cam Sutton said. "He really puts in the time, puts in the work, always asking questions, always around guys asking questions and coaches asking questions.

"I'm really happy for him, really excited for him, the path that he's on, the path that he's continued to grow into as a player. What he's been doing thus far over his time here with special teams and a limited time on defense, a guy who is really embracing his roles and just excited for every opportunity that he's getting."

That goes for the kickoff, kickoff return, punt and punt return teams, and for calling the defensive signals if necessary.

"For me, it's comfortable," Spillane maintained. "I like speaking to my teammates during and pre-snap. I've gotten so comfortable with these guys over the past two years.

"It really feels awesome because as soon as I stepped on the field I felt like my teammates trusted me and they've respected the work I've put in the last two years. They told me, 'Rob, you belong out here. This is what you're meant to do so go out here and show everybody what we know you can do.'

"That felt really good to hear from them."

Related Content

Advertising