Tim Benz: Steelers’ Devin Bush insists he’s big enough for NFL
We can all be critical. And we often are. But it’s not like Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert is blind. Nor are head coach Mike Tomlin and defensive coordinator Keith Butler.
Certainly, Dick LeBeau wasn’t either.
They saw this coming.
The Steelers realized where offense was going in the NFL, even if they may have been guilty of trying to counter with the traditional 3-4 defensive sensibilities longer than they should’ve.
In at least one area, though, the team tried to keep up with the curve. They knew offenses were becoming pass-happy, especially against them and their usual stout run defense. That realization was even occurring toward the end of the Bill Cowher era.
They have been looking for athletic, sideline-to-sideline, pass-defending, three-down, speed-oriented inside linebackers for a while now.
They just can’t keep them healthy. First, it was Sean Spence in 2012, who was lost to catastrophic knee injury in his rookie preseason. Then it was Ryan Shazier’s spinal injury after he emerged as a Pro Bowler.
Now it’s Devin Bush’s turn to attempt to drag that position for the Steelers into the modern age.
Again, it’s not for a lack of trying that the Steelers haven’t filled that role with long-term occupants. I remember endorsing the Spence pick for all of those reasons above when others criticized him for being a reach because he was deemed too small.
If Spence came into the draft — pre-knee injury — in 2019 as opposed to 2012, a player of his ilk would probably be an early second-rounder as opposed to a late third-rounder.
Similarly, a rookie version of Shazier (in perfect health) may have battled Bush and Devin White for top marks at the position and a spot in the Top 10 of the draft. Yet, even as recently as his 2014 draft class, some people were wondering if maybe Shazier went a little too high to the Steelers at pick No. 15.
He turned out to be plenty worthy.
All three players are similar in size. The Steelers list Shazier at 6-foot-1, 230 pounds. Leaving Ohio State he was 237. Bush is 5-foot-11, 234 pounds. Spence measured in at the NFL Combine at 5-foot-11, 231 pounds.
Yet I heard a lot of whispers of “Boy, the first-rounder looks smaller than I thought” from onlookers at Steelers workouts these last few weeks.
Clearly, both Shazier and Spence had their careers slowed by single massive injuries. But Shazier struggled with nicks and dings throughout his career before his back injury, averaging 4.5 missed games per year. Spence never started more than nine games in the league but did manage to dress for 46 out of 48 contests once he returned.
Can Bush’s body sustain the pounding at inside linebacker in the NFL?
“I’m a grown man as much as anyone else in this locker room,” Bush said. “I’m here to play football. Nothing changes.”
So far, his position coach, Jerry Olsavsky, says Bush hasn’t looked out of place.
“He’s just a good, quality player,” Olsavsky said. “We’re anxious to see him (in training camp) when everything is going real. But he’s everything we’ve expected.”
Olsavsky says Bush shows his ability to bang with big bodies particularly in pass-rushing.
“Devin is a good pass-rusher,” Olsavsky insisted. “He rushed at Michigan. Being a good pass-rusher, if you’ve got feel, you can be a good pass-rusher.”
Attacking the passer is one portion of the game where Bush maintains his lack of size may help him.
“I’m low to the ground. Very quick. Explosive off the first step,” Bush said. “I can generate a lot of power with my legs and my arms. Being able to use my athleticism in the middle to have that quick burst — that strength — to withstand the bigger guys, I think that’s the biggest advantage when I rush inside.”
Running over pass-blocking running backs when Bush has a head of steam is one thing, tackling them when they are running at him is another. And that’s where the wear-and-tear could come into play.
That says nothing of the open-field kind of hits in the pass game that befell Shazier, as well.
At Bush’s size, technique will be as important as physicality.
“Learning the whole new game, being around a bunch of veterans, it’s a whole new way of playing football,” Bush said. “It’s more mental than physical. I’m learning a lot.”
The unfortunate thing for the Steelers is that they had tried to be up to speed on this inside linebacker issue.
Now they appear to be playing catch up. Again.
Hopefully Bush can get them there and validate that the Steelers have properly identified the problem and invested in the right type of solution.
They just need to keep that solution on the field long enough, often enough, to prove the point.