Steelers fans are incorrectly assuming Devin Bush’s replacement

When Devin Bush went down with an apparent knee injury in Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns, Steelers fans immediately jumped to conclusions about who may replace the team’s starting inside linebacker and defensive play caller.

Some of these conclusions have come from a similar situation where Ryan Shazier, who used to man the same position years early, went on injured reserve during the 2017 season.

Here are some of Bush’s potential replacements including the one I feel will be given the best shot at taking his job for the remainder of the 2020 season.

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Free Agents

When Ryan Shazier was hurt in 2017, the Steelers sought someone with experience within their own organization who they could quickly plug into the spot.

They first experimented with Arthur Moats, who had played outside linebacker, playing on the inside. Following a one-game test, the Steelers went in a different direction, bringing in former third-round pick Sean Spence.

Spence had been sitting at home after being cut by the Colts – his story a great one at that, after his own major knee injury cost him nearly two full years of football before making a return. However, his speed had diminished and he was unable to be the sole answer for the Steelers.

Likewise, there aren’t many free agents sitting at home right now that would be a good fit for the Steelers, especially on short notice. Names like Vontaze Burfict have surfaced, and I don’t see any way that Pittsburgh would do a deal with the devil there.

Darron Lee and Mychal Kendricks are also available, but in this age of COVID-19, any new acquisition will have an adjustment period before they can join their new club (see: Le’Veon Bell and the Chiefs). Kendricks signed with the Seahawks for $4.5 million last year, and Lee, who was released by the Jets this year, was averaging $2.5 million per season. Each are expensive rentals for depth purposes who may not get to start right away.

As for another street free agent with Steelers experience, veteran Steven Johnson, is available. Now age 32, he spent this spring with the Seattle Dragons of the XFL.

I’m also hearing fans mutter another name too: Lawrence Timmons is 34 and has been out of football for over two years.

It’s unlikely either are up to the caliber of playing in the NFL with their age and current situation.

If the Steelers do add someone, I doubt it will be for anything more than depth. So don’t look for any “big” names that aren’t currently with a team – which is also a statement on if these players want to play during COVID-19, they’re asking for too much money (that the Steelers don’t have) or they’re simply past their prime.

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Trades

I know that Kevin Colbert has been trade crazy as of late, but I’m not sure that the Steelers will be willing to wheel and deal too much for another inside linebacker at this time. The ideal candidate would have to be a player on a rookie contract, with four or fewer years in the league, as to fit them under the salary cap.

The equivalent at wide receiver would be someone like Ryan Switzer, who wasn’t in the Raiders’ plans when he was shipped to the Steelers for a lower round draft pick.

The reason? Salaries and contracts.

The Steelers don’t have a ton of money to take on anyone with a sizeable contract – and most NFL teams aren’t going to eat the guarantees they’ve paid for a player to go play for someone else. (Also see Le’Veon Bell: a rare exception to the rule, well, because it’s the Jets and they’re a dumpster fire.)

For this trade to be of any value to both sides the player would have to be someone who is good for the Steelers and the equity for the trade partner would have to have a perceived value of “being worth it” as well.

That player would also need to learn the entire Steelers defense and have the radio in their helmet, if we’re presuming, they takeover for Bush.

That’s a tall task entering Week 7.

There’s really only one player out there that would make any sense for the Steelers to inquire about: Denver Broncos LB Mark Barron. Barron went on injured reserve with a hamstring injury in training camp, but is now eligible to return to practice per the new IR rules for 2020’s COVID-19 changes.

Barron is currently under a one-year deal, which already paid a roster bonus of $750,000. His base salary $1,750,000, which broken up by 16 games, would be more than affordable for the Steelers to take on. Some fans may balk at the idea, but he was a cap casualty who actually played 70% of the defensive snaps last season – shy of Bush’s 82% but far above Vince Williams‘ 30%. His experience would be welcome, but, would the Broncos be a willing trade partner? (They were with the Devin Bush draft pick!)

It takes two to tango and perhaps Barron might not want relegated to reserve role, or even bother with moving back to Pittsburgh, amid all of the coronavirus hassles.

I will also note that Jon Bostic (who was not a fit for the Steelers) is currently with Washington and likely not a player the team is willing to trade for in lieu of other options already on the roster.

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Marcus Allen and Ulysees Gilbert III

This is where my pet peeves come into play with Steelers fans and logic. I understand there are a lot of Steelers fans who are also Penn State football fans, but the college to pro translation doesn’t always work for every player.

That’s where I’m at with Marcus Allen, a safety who was flirting with some inside linebacker looks during this year’s training camp and has even been listed on the Steelers roster as a linebacker for the 2020 season.

Even with Robert Spillane coming in for the injured Bush on Sunday, fans instantly jumped to Allen being Bush’s successor – as well as Ulysses Gilbert.

Let’s discuss this.

Allen, a fifth-round draft choice in 2018, hasn’t appeared in a game for the Steelers since that rookie year: a single snap in Week 17’s win over the Bengals.

He would only appear in one other game on the defensive side of the ball in his Steelers career in a Week 13 game against the Chargers that same season. After sitting almost all of 2019 on the Steelers practice squad, and being inactive for one game (Eagles) this season means Allen has only played 18 snaps since being drafted.

That’s hardly a vote of confidence from the coaching staff.

As for Gilbert, his path has been lesser than that of Allen’s. He has yet to appear on defense in any game after being drafted in the sixth-round last season. Gilbert was placed on IR early last November and has only been active for one of the Steelers five games thus far in 2020.

To suggest either player is going to jump into Bush’s spot is a stretch. I’m sure those players will be prepped to do so going forward, but at this time it’s one man’s job to lose…

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Robert Spillane

Spillane’s rise to being a potential starter this Sunday against the Titans has been well documented by others already. (Read this detailed story on him over at Steelers.com.) He’s been on and off of practice squads, but found himself called up to the Steelers active roster in Week 11 last season.

He made the active roster for 2020, surprising many people – myself included, as we had limited details about training camp operations due to facilities being closed to the general public during this pandemic.

But here’s what you do need to know: the coaches had such confidence in Spillane that they were willing to let special teams ace Tyler Matakevich leave in free agency. They’ve also played Spillane over Allen and Gilbert – Spillane appeared in the Steelers Week 1 victory over the Giants before playing 53% of the game this past Sunday against the Browns.

His 38 snaps are only 3% of the defense’s total for 2020, and yes, there should be some Nervous Nellies with cause for concern out there. However, this is one of those situations where the writing is on the wall and we, as outside observers, trust the process that is Mike Tomlin’s standard.

Spillane never left the field once Bush went down.

Combined with Allen and Gilbert’s lack of playing time, the opportunity is all Spillane’s… for now.

As mentioned above with Moats, this could be a temporary situation.

Will the Steelers trade for someone? Will the sign a street free agent?

Let’s wait and see. It would appear that for the short term, Spillane has been given a golden chance to show what he’s made of.

One response to “Steelers fans are incorrectly assuming Devin Bush’s replacement”

  1. Dave Dubois says:

    Good read Joe! I believe they will be using Spillane primarily, but I also think they may use UGIII in spot duty. Maybe some passing downs? We’ll see, but I have to believe that Gilbert is still on the 53 for a reason, but his lack of special teams use has kept him from getting a helmet over Allen (especially). But, I 100% concur, Spillane will get the bulk of the work. From what I understand, while not an elite level athlete (by NFL player standards I mean!), he is Tyler Matakevich with upgraded athleticism.

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