(Screenshot of Robert Spillane getting beat in coverage by Jarvis Landry)
The Steelers found themselves in some vulnerable situations last year after inside linebacker Devin Bush suffered a season-ending ACL injury in Week 6 against the Browns, especially down the stretch when they lost five of their last six games, including the embarrassing wild-card game loss to the Browns at Heinz Field.
Speaking of the playoff loss to Cleveland, how can you forget inside linebacker Robert Spillane covering wide receiver Jarvis Landry on a key third-and-2 in the fourth quarter? Three plays later, running back Nick Chubb caught a screen pass and went for a 40-yard touchdown to give the Browns a 42-23 lead with 12:32 left in the game.
The Steelers never adjusted, and the Browns continued to target Landry when Spillane was covering him. It was very similar to 2018 when former Steelers inside linebacker Jon Bostic was continuously matched up with Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen.
Steelers free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick spoke with the media after Tuesday's OTAs practice about last season's coverage issues in regards to the inside linebacker position, and he alluded to it being a personnel problem.
“Part of it was that we were missing our two starting inside linebackers,” Fitzpatrick said. “Devin (Bush) and Spillane got hurt later in the season so we had to bring in guys that didn’t understand the playbook as well."
Spillane suffered a knee injury in the loss to the Washington Football Team in Week 13 and missed the final four games of the regular season, but would return for the playoff game, and as mentioned, he got exposed.
"Teams attacked those guys," Fitzpatrick said. "They spread them out and had the three to strength and the two to the weak side where the linebackers were and the guys we had there were new, new to the scheme, and didn’t understand the concept 110 percent and teams kind of exposed that.”
Bush has reportedly been doing great in his rehab and has participated in some drills during OTAs. It's expected that Bush will be ready to go for training camp in late July.
Bush is the key to the Steelers fixing their coverage problems at the inside linebacker position. That's why they traded up 10 spots in the 2019 NFL Draft to select him at 10th overall. He has the speed and athleticism to match up with running backs, tight ends and even some wide receivers. That's not the case with Spillane and Vince Williams, however, which is why the Steelers depth is concerning at inside linebacker. It's crucial that Bush stays healthy, or the inside linebackers will continue to be exposed in pass coverage by teams around the league.