The 2022 NFL season is one of transition for the entire Pittsburgh Steelers franchise. But for one particular player, the season is dire, with his future hanging in the balance. Arguably no other Steeler has more pressure on him than fourth-year inside linebacker Devin Bush.
Bush has had a rough go of things since first entering the league in 2019. The pressure was on immediately after the Steelers uncharacteristically moved up 10 spots (the most ever) to select Bush as successor to Ryan Shazier, giving up second and third-round picks in the process.
In an August 3 chat, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Gerry Dulac answered bluntly when asked if Bush could be relegated to non-starter status in this season.
“There’s a lot of politics in the NFL when it comes to No. 1 draft choices, meaning teams sometimes don’t want to acknowledge their mistakes,” Dulac wrote.
In hindsight, the selection of Bush is being labeled as a mistake made by the Steelers, but if he continues on a downward spiral, it’s no longer a label but a fact. Is Pittsburgh flirting with holding onto him too long because doing so would acknowledge they made a mistake?
The Steelers have a propensity for retaining players longer than they should. Many fans will argue that’s the case for safety Terrell Edmunds (No. 28 overall, 2018), linebacker Jarvis Jones (No. 17 overall, 2013) and Artie Burns (No. 25 overall, 2016). The same could go for players taken in later draft rounds, like Justin Layne and Ulysees Gilbert III.
So Far, Not So Good
For the entirety of training camp, the Pittsburgh Steelers rotated inside linebackers Myles Jack, Robert Spillane and Bush for first-team reps at inside linebacker. Observations from Gerry Dulac were not glowing.
“Let’s put it this way, you notice Bush on the practice field for the wrong reasons,” Dulac wrote. “I understand he is being micro-managed by everyone to see how he will bounce back after last season. But, well….um…”
When the NFL forced Pittsburgh to release its first depth chart on August 5, Bush and Spillane were listed as co-starters. While Spillane has shown flashes, he lacks consistency. If Spillane wins the starting inside linebacker job opposite Jack, the defense is in dire straights.
Bush had a poor outing in the first preseason game versus the Seattle Seahawks, but the unit suffered, surrendering eight catches on eight targets for two touchdowns and three first downs, according to PFF. His performance was graded better Week 2 (78.9 overall) versus Week 1 (34.2). If Bush can carry that momentum into the finale, he has a good shot at winning the gig.
The 2020 season had all the makings of a second-year leap Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin could be proud of. But five weeks in, during a tilt with the rival Cleveland Browns, Bush took an awkward step while tracking down running back Ernest Jackson. His left knee gave out, and his ACL was shredded. The tear cost him all but five games in 2020 and hampered him all of 2021. But at what point are the injury effects — primarily mental at this point — an excuse instead of a reason?
On average, NFL players return to the field in just under 10 months. But it can take them another full year to get back to 100 percent and start to feel more confident about their knee enough to make impactful plays.
The dig on Bush last year is that he lacked hustle and effort — red flags regardless of position.
Bush’s 2021 season, where he ranked among the league’s worst defenders, is still fresh in Mike Tomlin’s memory. Bush’s play took a substantial dive after his return compared to year one (2019). Per Pro Football Focus, he posted 62.9 overall defensive and 63.3 run defense grades. In 2021, Bush posted a 34.4 overall grade and an abysmal 27.2 run defensive grade. He ranked as the NFL’s third-worst linebacker and the worst at his position against the run (among linebackers with at least 500 snaps). Say what you want about PFF, but it’s nearly impossible to argue a grade that dreadful.
The Steelers coaching staff wants to see Bush succeed and bounce back. They selected him for what they saw as the potential to be great. And, of course, they’d like a return on their substantial investment.
Bush will be on a very short leash this season, and if Senior Defensive Assistant Brian Flores can’t help him, it’s entirely possible no one can.
Is Devin Bush’s Heart Still in Football?
When asked during an August 16 media scrum whether this season was his last chance to show Pittsburgh what he’s made of, Devin Bush said, “I mean, it’s a business. I’m gonna still be in the NFL, so… we’ll see.”
One of Mike Tomlin’s famous phrases is “We prefer volunteers, not hostages,” and Bush’s demeanor appeared to be that of the latter.
Bush’s passionless answer lacked confidence and caused many to doubt his commitment to the Black and Gold. Of course, declining your fifth-year option is discouraging to any player, but to be respected, you have to turn it into a positive. Hopefully, when it really counts during the regular season, Bush will use the slight as extra motivation.
What Bush needs to realize is if he doesn’t have a bounce-back season, teams won’t be clamoring to sign him in free agency, let alone to a hefty contract.