By Jeremy Hritz
Our study of the 2021 Steelers depth chart continues with a look at the inside linebacker position. ILB was a spot annihilated by injuries last season, and it was a primary reason for the drastic drop off in quality of play on defense, as players cycled in and out, resulting in a loss of continuity and consistency, and familiarity with the defense.
Inside backer is an important position to the Steelers because typically one of the two wears the green dot and receives the play calls from the sidelines and makes them for the defense. Historically, this role has been filled by the “Buck” ILB, Vince Williams; however, last season, Devon Bush took over this role, even though he plays the “Mack” ILB position, which is typically manned by an athletic player who covers the outside/edge, as opposed to the “Buck” who plays interior gaps and the short passing game.
When Bush went down with a torn ACL, a game of musical chairs ensued that earned opportunities for Robert Spillane, and the trade-acquired Avery Williamson, who is no longer with the team. While Spillane sparked at times, he was inexperienced, and too, injured, but his starts last season will be valuable heading into 2021.
Your Starting Mack and Buck
The starters week 1 will be Bush at the “Mack” and Spillane at the “Buck.” Both are younger players, Bush 22 and Spillane 25, so their ceiling has yet to be hit. While Bush offers more explosiveness and athleticism, Spillane is a thumper (ask Derrick Henry), and brings a level of physicality to the inside of the defense. Their styles contrast and compliment each other, though there are some limitations to Spillane’s game.
As it stands now, Vince Williams is still on the roster and would be the next man up at the Buck, as his experience and knowledge of the defense are well documented. What he can bring in the running game can still be effective, though his ability to cover the pass, is less than desirable, as he has been exposed over the years, especially by tight ends. Whether or not he will remain with the team or be a cap casualty will be a story that will play out over training camp.
In terms of the backup at the Mack, Ulysses Gilbert III enters his 3rd season, and while he has yet to show he can utilize his speed and athleticism, he will be given every opportunity in camp to do so. If he can avoid the injuries that plagued him his first two seasons, and show a jump in his knowledge and performance on the field, he will get some snaps in relief of Bush. If there is no progress, I would not be surprised to see him cut.
Beyond the Top 4
Rounding out the depth at ILB will be rookie Buddy Johnson, whom the team more than likely sees as a Buck, though there is some sneaky athleticism there that I’m sure is intriguing to coaches. While he will need time to develop, he should contribute on special teams, and offer some value at ILB, as he was all over the field at Texas A&M. If he progresses as the Steelers hope, the Steelers could have a late-round starter opposite Bush for years to come.
Beyond Johnson, Marcus Allen continues to transition to a hybrid linebacker role, and should remain on the roster, as he does offer some speed and athleticism, while Tegray Scales will more than likely end up on the practice squad.
After a unfortunate season for the position, ILB looks to be a position of strength on the defensive unit in 2021, as they have quality starters and experienced depth, especially in terms of Buck ILB. Bush’s health is key for this unit and for the ultimate success of the defense, and coming off of his ACL year, the Steelers will mindful and thoughtful in how they approach his return to the field. He is needed for this defense to play at its best, and his availability is absolutely critical.