The middle linebacker position has been a glaring hole on the Steelers defense since the unfortunate career-ending injury that Ryan Shazier sustained in 2017. Five years have gone by, and to this day, nobody has been able to fill those shoes, and many have come and gone or are soon on their way out of Pittsburgh.
Now it’s not like the Steelers haven’t tried to fix the middle linebacker position. Sometimes the players they acquired haven’t lived up to the teams’ and many fans’ expectations. Sometimes injuries pop up and weaken the part. Or maybe the Steelers haven’t been as aggressive as they should’ve been.
Sure, trying to replace a player like Ryan Shazier isn’t an easy thing to do. But when it comes to the Steelers, they usually have no problem finding a linebacker, especially at the middle linebacker position. Their history at ILB is endless and full of prestige. However, it has recently been full of disappointment and mediocrity.
As we look back at the players that have tried but failed, it will be no secret why the Steelers MUST address the middle linebacker position.
In March 2018, the Steelers signed Jon Bostic to a two-year, $4 million contract after Bostic garnered a solid year previously with the Indianapolis Colts. That gave the Steelers optimism that Bostic could be a solid playmaker on defense. They named him the starting ILB beside Vince Williams, who had signed a three-year, $18.60 million contract extension after a productive 2017 season beside Shazier.
But Shazier’s absence was felt throughout the 2018 season as Bostic didn’t live up to what the Steelers had hoped for. Bostic would play in all 16 games with 14 starts, gathering 73 combined tackles (46 solos), 5 TFLs, 2.5 sacks, and 3 PD.
Due to his disappointing performance, Steelers saw no purpose in keeping him around for a second season, as the team released him shortly after the 2019 NFL Draft.
In March 2019, the Steelers signed Mark Barron to a two-year, $12 million contract after playing five seasons with St. Louis/Los Angeles Rams. Barron had been a part of the Los Angeles Rams team that made it to Super Bowl LIII, but they would lose to the New England Patriots 13-3.
Being a SS turned LB and a consistent starter for the Rams, the Steelers seemed to think they had the hybrid linebacker they had been looking for. Throughout the 2019 season, he and Vince Williams would split starts playing alongside 1st round rookie linebacker Devin Bush Jr.
Barron would play 15 games with nine starts, while Williams played 14 games with eight starts. Barron would have more playing time than Vince would, even in games that Vince would start in, with Barron playing 750 snaps on defense and Vince playing only 396.
But despite the increased snap count and Barron’s versatility, he showed a lot of inconsistencies as a playmaker. Mark Barron would finish the season racking up 82 combined tackles (58 of them solo), 4 TFLs, three sacks, 1 FR, 3 PD, and one 1INT.
After the emergence of Devin Bush Jr. following his rookie season resulted in the Steelers releasing Mark Barron during the 2020 NFL offseason.
DEVIN BUSH JR.
During the 2019 NFL Draft, the Steelers traded their 1st-round pick (20th overall), 2nd-round pick (59th overall) in the 2019 NFL Draft, and 3rd-round pick (83rd overall) in the 2020 NFL Draft to the Denver Broncos in exchange for their 10th overall pick. The Steelers would use that pick to select Devin Bush Jr., LB, Michigan.
In his final year in Michigan, Devin Bush showcased a lot of upside and talent that he was named Butkus-Fitzgerald Linebacker of the Year and Nagurski-Woodson Defensive Player of the Year. Despite being only 5′ 11″ at the LB position, Bush had a lot to like about him with his lightning-fast speed and physicality.
It was a move the Steelers had to make as they couldn’t afford to ignore the middle linebacker position any longer.
In Devin Bush’s rookie season, he would burst onto the scene and put up a good year where he played in all 16 games, starting 15. He ended his rookie season with 109 combined tackles (72 solos), 9 TFLs, one sack, 1 FF, 4 FR (1 being returned for a TD), 4 PD, and 2 INTs.
After his rookie year, it seemed like the Steelers and Steelers Nation had their replacement at middle linebacker. Throughout his second season, Bush consistently grew as he would play every defensive snap in the first five games of the 2020 season, where he started all 5.
But what seemed to be a breakout season for Devin Bush was unfortunately cut short. In the second quarter of the Week 6 matchup versus the Cleveland Browns, Bush suffered a torn ACL and was placed on Injured Reserve shortly after. This is where Devin Bush’s Steeler career would start to plummet.
There was hope that Devin Bush would recover from his injury and return to where he left off for the 2021 NFL season, but that was not the case. Bush’s explosiveness and physicality from his first two seasons were nowhere to be found on the field and affected the team and the defense.
Bush would play in 14 games, starting all of them, but only garnered 70 combined tackles (41 of them solo), 2 TFLs, two sacks, 1 FF, 1 FR, and 4 PD. Things were not looking suitable for Devin Bush and the middle linebacker.
Heading into the final year of his rookie contract in 2022, his future with the Steelers was up in the air. In May of 2022, the Steelers declined to pick up Bush’s fifth-year option, which would make him a free agent after the season. At this point, he wasn’t a guaranteed starter as he would battle with Robert Spillane for a starting role alongside Myles Jack, who signed with the Steelers during the 2022 offseason.
You’d think that Bush would want to make the Steelers regret their decision and prove his worth, right? But according to Devin Bush himself, he believed he had nothing to prove.
“I’m a first rounder. I’m a top-10 pick. That’s never going to change. I don’t think I got to prove anything to anybody.” – Steelers linebacker Devin Bush
During training camp, Bush continued to be asked by the media if he felt this was his last chance to remain with the Steelers. This is how Bush would respond.
“I mean, it’s the business. I’m still going to be in the NFL. So, we’ll see.” – Steelers linebacker Devin Bush
It seems like Bush is satisfied with his resumé of being a top-10 pick instead of living up to why the Steelers traded up to draft him. He managed to win a starting position at ILB but had another disappointing year. He finished the 2022 season with 81 combined tackles (44 of them solo), 2 TFLs, and 2 PD in 17 games, starting 14 of them but was benched for the last 3, where he only saw 31 defensive snaps.
Heading into the 2023 offseason, it doesn’t appear that the Steelers will be extending Devin Bush. A man that was at one point thought to be the replacement for Ryan Shazier couldn’t bounce back from his ACL injury. What could’ve been?
After Devin Bush suffered a torn ACL during the 2020 season, the Steelers leaned on Vince Williams and Robert Spillane as the starting middle linebackers. And while Spillane made some big plays in his first two games as a starter (stopping Derrick Henry at the 1-yard line in Week 7 and picking off Lamar Jackson for a pick-six in Week 8), the playmaking ability at the middle linebacker position was inconsistent, and the depth was pretty bare. This caused the Steelers to make a trade.
Shortly after the Week 8 victory versus the Baltimore Ravens, the Steelers traded away a 2022 5th-round pick to the New York Jets for Avery Williamson and a 2022 7th-round draft pick (which would be used to draft Mark Robinson).
Williamson wouldn’t see action as a Steeler until Week 10 versus the Cincinnati Bengals. He remained the backup to Williams and Spillane until Week 14, when he became the #1 due to Vince Williams landing on the COVID-19 list and Robert Spillane landing on Injured Reserve. Williamson remained the starter for the rest of the 2020 season. In the eight games he played in, 4 of which he started, he gathered up 52 combined tackles (37 of them solo), 3 TFLs, and one sack.
Unfortunately for the Steelers, he wasn’t the help they hoped he’d be for the team. His play on the field wasn’t enough for the Steelers to bring him back for a second season, even after the abrupt retirement of Vince Williams before the 2021 NFL season.
In July 2021, Vince Williams announced his retirement. That would leave a hole at the middle linebacker position once again. The Steelers had no choice but to make another trade at the place. In August 2021, the Steelers traded a 2022 6th-round pick to the Jacksonville Jaguars for Joe Schobert.
A Pro Bowler for the Browns in 2017, where he was selected as the replacement to Ryan Shazier, Joe Schobert signed a five-year, $53.75 million contract with the Jaguars during the 2020 offseason. He would only play one season with the team.
Schobert showed some flashes during his stints with Cleveland and Jacksonville, which gave the Steelers hope that he’d be worth the investment. But his play on the field as a Steeler was very subpar. He racked up 112 combined tackles (70 of them solo), 2 TFLs, 1 FF, 6 PD, and 1 INT. Schobert finished the 2021 season playing in 16 games, starting in 15.
Heading into the 2022 NFL season, Schobert was expected to carry a $9.7 million cap hit. And based on his production on the field, the Steelers would never keep him. They ended up releasing Joe Schobert after the reported signing of Schobert’s former teammate in Jacksonville, Myles Jack.
In March 2022, the Steelers signed Myles Jack to a two-year $16 million contract two days after the Jacksonville Jaguars released him. This signing generated a lot of excitement from Steelers Nation as Myles Jack was a familiar name during the 2016 NFL Draft process. A projected 1st-rounder who fell into the early 2nd due to injury, Jacksonville would draft him 36th overall.
Jack would play six seasons for the Jaguars, where he was a part of the Jaguars’ “Sacksonville” defense back in 2017. He would be the last player of that defense to leave the Jaguars.
Jack had the most upside, unlike the other additions at the middle linebacker position, and there was a lot to like about him. He utilized his size, speed, physicality, and playmaking ability, especially early in his career. But in his final years as a Jaguar, he wasn’t exactly the player he once was, which led to his release. But there was optimism that a change of scenery would bring out the old Myles Jack.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case, as he failed to have an impact on the defense and had a disappointing first year in the black and gold. He had 104 combined tackles (61 of them solo), 3 TFLs, and 3 PD in 15 games, 13 of which he started.
As of right now, it’s unknown if the Steelers will keep Jack for a second season or release him. If he sticks around, all we can do is hope he bounces back. But if he’s cut, he’ll be another name in the category of players that haven’t been able to replace Ryan Shazier.
Since Ryan Shazier’s injury, the Steelers have brought in 6 players to fill the void at the middle linebacker position. All have underperformed. The absence of a stud player in the middle of the field has taken its toll on the team. And with the 2023 offseason coming up, the Steelers will look to see if they can finally get their guy at ILB.
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