By Jeremy Hritz
For as bad of a season it was for the defensive line in 2021, it was equally as bad for the inside linebacker unit. There was optimism around the return of Devin Bush from his ACL tear and the trade for once-solid Joe Schobert; however, that enthusiasm was short-lived, as Bush failed to make plays in the running and passing game, and Schobert was consistently ragged-dolled and caught up in the trash trying to make the tackle. This ILB position must improve in 2022, or it could be more of the same for the Steelers defense that was well below the Pittsburgh standard.
|Marcus Allen||27||LB||6-2||215||25||4||Penn State|
|Ulysees Gilbert III||54||ILB||6-0||230||24||4||Akron|
|Buddy Johnson||45||LB||6-2||240||23||2||Texas A&M|
|Robert Spillane||41||LB||6-1||229||26||4||Western Michigan|
While Schobert is no longer with the team, Bush is returning, even though the Steelers decided not to pick up his 5th year option. This is a prove-it year for Bush, and he has everything on the line, and not just for the Steelers, but also in auditioning for other NFL teams in the event he is not retained. This offseason, Bush has indicated that he feels more secure and confident in the health of his knee, which he said did mentally impact his game last season. If he can regain his pre-injury form, Bush can be an outstanding inside linebacker, and the Steelers need that type of play if the defense is going to get better.
Alongside Bush will be another former Jacksonville Jaguar, Myles Jack. Jack is athletic, smart, and a tackling machine, and at only 26-years old, there is hope he has much left in his game. On paper, a fully recovered Bush and a reinvigorated Jack make for a talented and athletic inside linebacker position.
Backing Up Bush and Jack
Robert Spillane will most likely be the first man up in the event of an injury, as he has filled this role over the past few seasons. However, he is limited athletically, and doesn’t have great size for the position. He can provide spot duty when needed, and his experience makes him a valuable depth asset. Buddy Johnson enters his 2nd season with many question marks, as he didn’t get much playing time in 2021, and when he was about to get an opportunity, he got hurt. Johnson needs to show not only growth, but also availability, as not being on the field will not be conducive to his value. Mark Robinson is an intriguing rookie with speed, but not much experience. He has a reputation for being a heavy hitter, but he will need to show he can learn and adapt to the NFL game quickly to have a shot at the roster.
The Best of the Rest
Marcus Allen, a hybrid ILB/S, returns for a 4th season, but faces the possibility of this being his final stint with the team. Allen has played in a variety of roles for the Steelers, including special teams, but he offers nothing more than a knowledge of the defensive system and assignment-accurate football. After 4 years, this is not enough. The same goes for Ulysses Gilbert III, who has made some splash on special teams, but has not made any contribution at the inside linebacker position. He will be pushed hard by the younger backers and could be on the outside looking in come cut-down time.
Big Year for Bush
This is a big year for Bush, and if he is healthy and refocused, the Steelers defense will benefit in a major way. Additionally, while the Jack signing looks good on paper like the trade for Schobert did last season, until we see production on the field, it’s just a headline and speculation. The ILB position needs results this year, and if they don’t produce, it will be another long year for the defense.