The Pittsburgh Steelers have a rich tradition of linebacker play. Steelers linebackers are the gold standard of the NFL and some of the best players in the Super Bowl era have occupied the position. The Steelers reached into free agency this offseason to bring in Myles Jack. They also brought in former Miami Dolphins head coach, Brian Flores, to work with the linebacker group. Fans hoped that hire was code for working with and restoring the confidence of former first-round draft pick, Devin Bush Jr.
Bush was the tenth overall pick in the 2019 NFL draft after an impressive collegiate career at the University of Michigan. He was the 2018 Defensive Player of the Year in the Big Ten and an All-American. The Steelers traded the 20th and 52nd pick in the 2019 NFL Draft and a 2020 third-round draft pick to select Bush. He paid immediate dividends with a solid rookie season finishing third in the Defensive Rookie of The Year voting.
When the Steelers entered the 2020 season they raced to an 11-0 start, but five games into the season Bush tore his ACL. Knee surgery has come so far in the NFL that fans know it is a major injury that costs the player their whole season. But the fans expect the player to return the following season at or near 100 percent physically. Bush got a clean bill of health from the training staff in Pittsburgh to return in 2021 with a structurally sound knee, but on the field his game suffered because he hadn’t mentally recovered.
The former All-American was a shadow of himself in 2021. He was tentative and while the defensive line play was not up to previous years standards outside of Cam Heyward, Bush consistently was out of position. Sometimes, opposing linemen were driving him off the ball, but too often he was taking bad angles to the ball. The Steelers declined the fifth-year option on Bush and 2022 became a make-or-break season for the inside linebacker.
Saturday night, despite missing much of the front seven against the Seahawks, the inside linebacker group including Jack, Bush and Robert Spillane were all on the field. Jack, true to form, flashed his ability making a great stop on third and one, using his speed to knife into the backfield and get a tackle for loss. Bush also flashed but for the wrong reasons. Arthur Moats from The Arthur Moats Experience with Deke Podcast discussed the fourth-year player’s performance or lack thereof when he was asked about Bush being ‘horrendous’ against the Seahawks.
“Devin Bush,” Moats replied. “He has to be more consistent, he has to play better. I wouldn’t call it horrendous because he was still in some of the right positions. The thing is you need more aggression, more playmaking, which is the thing that continues to be missing from his game and that continues to show on Saturday.”
Moats often has unique insight about linebacker play in Pittsburgh, as a former Steelers linebacker who spent eight seasons in the NFL. He was highlighting the one ability that Flores cannot coach, aggression. Bush is simply not the same player and at this point in his young career he may never regain the trait. He has exceptional physical gifts and might be faster than Myles Jack in a foot race, but the former Jacksonville Jaguar who also has a history of injuries has never lost his ability to find the ball.
Bush was a top ten pick in the draft and a change of scenery could help restore his confidence. It is possible that it was just a bad game and he could be a wrecking ball against Jacksonville. The question is, can the Steelers afford to take the chance? His trade value is one more lackluster performance away from being at best, a late-round pick.
It is probably too much to hope for that the Chicago Bears, along with a couple of draft picks would consider a swap for Roquan Smith. However, a third or fourth-round pick versus letting him walk in free agency might be something the Steelers are going to have to consider. Spillane is aggressive, but he is not the physical talent that Bush is on the field. Buddy Johnson and Mark Robinson are too young and inconsistent to play the position at the level the defense needs.
Bush is in a position to make plays, but just watching the action as a fan is one of the most frustrating things. Maybe the Steelers should see if 32-year-old Vince Williams after a year off, has a little gas left in the tank. The current linebacker corps is missing a downhill thumper to pair with the speedy Jack and hustling Spillane. If nothing else, the Steelers know he isn’t going to be hesitant to make a play.
What do you think Steeler Nation? How do you feel about Devin Bush? Please comment below or on my Twitter @thebubbasq.