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Steelers-By-Position: ILBs

Another in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency on March 17.

Marcus Allen, Devin Bush, Ulysees Gilbert, Tegray Scales, Robert Spillane, Vince Williams, Avery Williamson
(Free Agent Scorecard: 1 unrestricted – Avery Williamson)

Take a look at the best photos of the Steelers linebackers during the 2020 season

The Steelers believed they had settled the issue that had developed in the middle of their defense following Ryan Shazier's spinal injury in December 2017 when they traded up in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft and selected Devin Bush with the 10th overall pick. But when Bush tore an ACL in a 38-7 win over Cleveland at Heinz Field on Oct. 18, their problems returned.

Up until his season was ended by that knee injury, Bush was living up to the expectation of him as an every-down, all-situations inside linebacker. He had played every snap on defense, had three passes defensed, and a couple of hits on the quarterback plus a half-sack in the rare situations he was sent as a pass-rusher. But once Bush was removed from the equation, the middle of the Steelers defense was more vulnerable.

It wasn't that way immediately, because Robert Spillane filled in admirably, but then he was injured, too. This left the Steelers scrambling, and they found themselves having to mix-and-match in the interior of their defense with Marcus Allen, Ulysees Gilbert, and Vince Williams. Then Gilbert was injured, too, and the Steelers made a trade with the Jets to bring Avery Williamson to Pittsburgh, but with so many new and/or inexperienced players having to play so many snaps it wasn't long until opponents began finding ways to take advantage.

Williams ended up leading the unit in tackles with 69, and he also contributed 14 tackles for loss, three sacks, and four hits on the quarterback. Williamson played in eight games for the Steelers and started the four Spillane missed while on injured reserve, and he had 52 tackles, including three for loss, and a sack.

Spillane was the pleasant surprise of the season for the Steelers, and he finished with 43 tackles, including a goal-line stuff of Derrick Henry in Tennessee, to go along with two sacks and an interception he returned for a touchdown in a 28-24 win over the Ravens. Allen, in his first season as a hybrid linebacker, finished with 24 tackles, including two for loss.

From the first game of his rookie season until the play against the Browns at Heinz Field last October when he injured his knee – a span of 21 regular season games – Devin Bush played 1,167 defensive snaps, all but 200 of the total, which represented 85.7 percent.

Take a look at photographs of Steelers LB Devin Bush from the 2020 season

The Steelers were able to get their salary cap to a number where they could be compliant come the start of the new league year on March 17 without having to cut any veteran players, but things remain sufficiently tight that any additions/re-signings they might care to make during free agency will have to come with a corresponding move to clear some salary.

One of the names regularly associated with the concept of cap casualties was Vince Williams, but it's difficult to portray the Steelers as a better team simply as a result of his departure. Williams is a throwback to the way inside linebacker used to be played, and he has deficiencies in coverage that opponents often game-plan to exploit. But he's also a physical, intelligent, aggressive linebacker who often sees more playing time than his skill-set might indicate because of his knowledge and ability to communicate on the field to make sure his teammates are "seeing what they're supposed to see and being where they're supposed to be."

Williams is not, and should not be the every-down, all-situations inside linebacker that Bush must be for the Steelers, but he has value if utilized and deployed properly.

That said, Bush is the key to this unit and so far in his short time in the NFL is showing himself to be a key ingredient, both to the immediate performance and to the future development of the defense as a whole. In a recent Zoom call, Bush was optimistic about his rehabilitation from knee surgery, and the Steelers need his unique skill-set every bit as much as they need T.J. Watt coming off the edge and Minkah Fitzpatrick making plays when the ball is in the air.

One benefit of the time Bush missed in 2020 with his knee injury is that it forced the Steelers to identify and begin the development process of other inside linebackers. Spillane is the individual who immediately comes to mind, a Western Michigan product who entered the NFL in 2018 as an undrafted rookie with the Tennessee Titans. Signed to a futures contract by the Steelers in February 2019, he spent that season on the practice squad before getting his big chance when Bush injured his knee.

The addition of Williamson via trade added more depth at a time when it was needed, but the transaction could end up being a short-term rental because he can become an unrestricted free agent on March 17, and there seems to be no clear path to the starting lineup for him barring injuries. Allen was moved from safety to hybrid linebacker during training camp, and he came in handy late in the season when injuries struck the position.

At some positions, the Steelers will look to add depth this offseason, and at others they will be interested in adding some top-end talent. At inside linebacker, as long as Devin Bush stays healthy, they could be OK keeping what they already have.

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