Mark Madden: No need for Steelers to treat Devin Bush with kid gloves
How much rookie inside linebacker Devin Bush plays Sunday at Gillette Stadium won’t determine who wins the game between the Steelers and New England.
Unless it does.
At the very least, it’s an interesting sidebar that showcases the Steelers’ conservative (perhaps antiquated) philosophy of putting rookies in safe, limited roles despite their pedigree (and/or having traded up, say, 10 spots to get them).
Troy Polamalu, for example, didn’t start a single game as a rookie. He started all of them after that.
Bush is not in the Steelers’ base 3-4. Mark Barron and Vince Williams are the inside ‘backers. Bush is in all the sub packages, so he figures to play 80 percent of the snaps.
But if the Patriots would rather go up against Williams than Bush, they can use a two-back set, as they often do. That likely would keep the Steelers’ base on the field, and quarterback Tom Brady can pick on Williams (who is substandard in coverage). Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is adept at getting the opposing defense to line up as he wants.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and defensive coordinator Keith Butler can adjust and sub Bush for Williams in the base. But would they?
The notion Bush shouldn’t be force-fed all the snaps (and the accompanying pressure) when his first NFL game is in the cauldron of Foxborough against arguably the greatest (and smartest) quarterback ever isn’t an absurd notion.
But nor is the idea of gambling on talent and seeing if Bush can handle it.
Bush seems a better bet than Williams, who likely begins the season as a starter out of veteran appeasement.
The biggest factor of all the inside ‘backers could be Barron, who was part of a defense that held Brady to 262 yards, no touchdowns and one interception in the last Super Bowl. Barron has speed, savvy and solid cover ability.
But Barron (6-foot-1, 214 pounds) isn’t great against the run. He would have difficulty taking on New England fullback James Develin (6-3, 251). Williams (6-1, 234) is better suited and also decent on the inside blitz: 4 1/2 sacks last season, eight in 2017.
In terms of talent and versatility, Bush seems an obvious starter. But he’s also likeliest to sit when the Steelers are in their base.
Unless he doesn’t.
Pregame depth charts often aren’t reflected by who’s out there on Sunday. Bush playing all the snaps (or close) isn’t out of the question.
The Patriots offense could be conservative, at least early. The retirement of tight end Rob Gronkowski forces a seismic shift in gameplan and execution.
The Patriots also lost receiver Chris Hogan to free agency. Hogan has a reputation as a Steelers killer dating to his 12 catches (two touchdowns) in the 2016 season’s AFC championship game.
The Steelers defense also will be closely observed in other areas.
Safety Kameron Kelly, late of the Alliance of American Football, figures to deputize for the injured Sean Davis. Davis isn’t exactly Ronnie Lott, but the notion of an AAF product (albeit the league’s all-time single-game interception record-holder) spending his first NFL contest dealing with the wiles of Brady is frightening.
Davis’ absence trickles down to the sub packages, likely eliminating the Steelers’ “big nickel” (three safeties) alignment.
The Steelers led the NFL in sacks last season, but pressuring Brady is rare and difficult (one sack in last season’s meeting). There’s also the matter of converting that pressure to turnovers, at long-last. The Steelers reeled in just 15 last season.
A close game is probable. A splash play on defense could decide it.
Who’s more likely to make that splash play: Bush, or Williams?