By Jeremy Hritz
What was believed to be a position of strength to begin the 2021 season turned out to be one of the weakest, as both Joe Schobert and Devin Bush underperformed and failed to live up to linebacker standards of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Schobert, who was known more as a force in pass coverage, was mediocre in that area this season, but his fatal flaw, tackling, was exposed more than ever in 2021. Some of that was due to poor defensive line play, but some of that was due to faulty technique and an inability to work through and shed blocks and make plays in the running game. Schobert will be due 9.7 million dollars this season if the Steelers keep him around, though if they cut him after June 1st, they can avoid such a big cap hit. Schobert didn’t show anything to make the organization to believe in his abilities, and at 28 years old, 29 during next season, it’s time to end this one year experiment and look elsewhere. I’ll admit, it was a move I was excited about at the start of last season, but to my disappointment, I was dead wrong. Schobert is not the physical, aggressive type of linebacker that fits the Steelers brand, and it’s time to move on.
And then there is Bush.
If Schobert is a disappointment, then Bush is an NFL tragedy. With so much promise coming into the league as the 10th overall pick out of Michigan with a tremendous blend of speed and lateral movement, it appeared the Steelers had found their heir apparent to Ryan Shazier. And for his first and second season (prior to his injury), that appeared to be the case. However, whether it was hesitancy because of recovery from his ACL tear, or just a flat out regression in skills, there was nobody on the defense who had a poorer season than Bush.
The hope is that 2021 was an anomaly for him and that he will rebound into the player he was prior to his injury, or at least somewhat close to what he was. The problem is, if you put the stock into that happening in 2022, and it doesn’t, this defense is in big trouble against the run once again. The optimistic way of looking at this situation is that Bush is only 23, and he has a great deal of football ahead of him. He is entering the 4th year of his rookie contract, and it is hard to forecast the Steelers cutting him without giving him an opportunity to redeem himself. More than likely he will be back, and unless he has an absolutely atrocious preseason, pencil him in as a starter once again in 2022.
Buddy Johnson is an unknown, and when he got opportunities for playing time, he was hurt. Johnson is physical and a thumper, and he will be given an extended look in 2022 as the potential partner alongside Bush. However, there is just too much uncertainty regarding what he can do to put all of your faith in his growth because if it doesn’t pan out, the options are limited for the team. As a result, the Steelers will need to examine free agency to see what is available to help bolster this unit, as another draft pick cannot be counted on to step in and play right away as the Steelers may need.
Robert Spillane is a nice depth piece for the Steelers, and as a restricted free agent, he will be re-signed for insurance for the unit, as he has made contributions to the defense. Marcus Allen is a free agent, and his time with the organization is more than likely over, while Ulysses Gilbert enters the final year of his contract and will remain as depth at the position.
Again, I don’t foresee the Steelers drafting an inside linebacker, unless an elite talent happens to fall to them, and instead I see them being active in free agency at the position. De’Vondre Campbell, Dont’a Hightower, Alexander Johnson, and Josey Jewell are a few names to watch to see if the Steelers pursue them in free agency.
The Steelers will require much growth and development at the inside linebacker position in 2022, as both Bush and Johnson will have to make strides to keep this defense competitive. Having a veteran free agent, in addition to Spillane will help soften the blow should that not be the case, but if it doesn’t happen, don’t count on this defense being a strong unit in the upcoming season.