By Jeremy Hritz
The Steelers have the luxury of having one of the best players in the world at outside linebacker on their team: TJ Watt. After a record-setting season in 2021 with 22.5 sacks, Watt seems more motivated than ever to eclipse that number and set the single-season record in the NFL for sacks. Voted as a team captain in 2022, Watt will dominate once again and be one of the reasons for optimism on this unit.
Opposite Watt for a third year will be Alex Highsmith who improved last year and could be on the verge of breaking out. Highsmith had 46 tackles, 6 sacks, and 1 forced fumble last season, which was a jump over his year one production. This offseason he discussed his focus on “finishing each play,” and if he can continue to even improve incrementally, that will benefit he partner in the pass rush, Watt. During training camp in 2021, Highsmith was a force of nature, but his season was modest. He is a player to keep an eye on this season to become the next star on the Steelers defense.
Backing up Watt will be newly traded for Malik Reed who is a pass-rush specialist and recorded 15 sacks in 3 seasons in Denver in limited time. He will be an upgrade over Derek Tuszka and Taco Charlton, both who were reserve OLBs last season with the Steelers. Behind Highsmith will be Jamir Jones, a training camp phenom in 2021, who returns to the team, hopeful to rekindle the success he had rushing the passer last preseason during the regular season.
Overall, Watt and Highsmith are a formidable starting duo, and the addition of Reed solidifies the depth of this group. If I were to acknowledge the strongest position on the team, outside linebacker is it.
Murky, But Jacked in the Middle
For as strong as the outside linebackers are for the Steelers, the insider backers are still a question mark. Devin Bush had a subpar training camp and preseason, and for a moment, it appeared there was a chance he would be cut. That did not materialize, and he is currently listed as the starting left inside linebacker. Bush was outstanding in his first season, showing range and athleticism, able to track down ballcarriers with speed and ease; however, after tearing his ACL, he has not been the same. The problems that Bush had in 2021–getting off blocks, covering tight ends, appearing interested in the game–resurfaced during camp and in preseason contests, raising significant concerns in Steelers Nation. In the final preseason contest against the Lions, Bush had his best game, even though there were still warts, and it was enough for him to hold onto his starting spot. Regardless, he will be on a short leash, and if his struggles appear early and often, he will undoubtedly be sent to the bench.
There is enthusiasm and excitement for Bush’s pal in the middle, Myles Jack, who comes to Pittsburgh after many successful seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Jack is a fiery, explosive player who can diagnose and react to the play quickly, consistently making tackles for losses, and setting the tone for the defense. While he too is not great in pass coverage, what he brings as a run defender is welcomed value to this organization. Jack could experience a career revitalization in Pittsburgh after playing in the doldrums of the NFL in Jacksonville, and he could be a player we spend much time talking about at the end of the season as to why the team excelled.
Backing up at LILB will be Robert Spillane who will be at the ready to jump into the starting lineup the moment Bush struggles, though he is limited athletically, and is best coming downhill to stop the run. At the ready at RILB will be Mark Robinson, the rookie out of Ole Miss, who turned heads this preseason with his explosion. While he is not ready, by mid-season, he should have enough of a grasp on the defense to get some snaps. Finally, Marcus Allen is listed as a third-team ILB and will be a special teams ace, and only get snaps at inside backer if something goes terrible awry at the position.
Can Bush regain his form? Will Jack become a new Steelers fan favorite? Or will it be a return to the shoddy ILB play from 2021? If this defense is to be a great unit, they need great play from their inside backers, but the jury is still out as to whether or not they can get it done.