It seems like the Pittsburgh Steelers have been trying to find other options at inside linebacker other than Robert Spillane for the last three years. But Spillane, who is set to enter this offseason as a free agent, made it clear that he wants to return to Pittsburgh next season.
“Going forward, I want to be a Steeler,” Spillane said according to Steelers reporter Chris Adamski of Triblive.com. “I want to be a three-down linebacker here. So we will see what happens.”
Spillane started at least four games in each of the last three seasons. A vast majority of those starts have come towards the end of each season, as Spillane entered the starting lineup as a replacement because of injuries or poor play from other starters.
But if back in Pittsburgh for 2023, Spillane could have the opportunity he wants — a chance to play all the time.
Spillane’s Desire to be a Three-Down Linebacker
The 27-year-old linebacker emphasized a couple different times to the media at the end of the season in January that he wants to be one of the NFL’s linebackers that don’t come off the field.
“I’ve always felt like I could play three downs in this league,” said Spillane. “And be a good player and help win games. And that’s what this all comes down to — winning these games. I love going out there with my teammates and having those opportunities to do that.”
There’s no doubt Spillane has helped his team win games, but the Steelers have been reluctant to make Spillane an every-down linebacker likely because of his reputation as a liability in coverage.
In recent years, the Steelers have designed their defense to feature a speedy inside linebacker. Ryan Shazier and Devin Bush each ran a sub-4.45 40-yard dash at the NFL combine.
At his school’s pro day, Spillane finished his 40-yard dash in 4.77 seconds.
Because of his lack of speed, Spillane struggles in pass defense. Among linebackers who played at least 20% of his team’s snaps last season, Pro Football Focus ranked him 84th out of 90 linebackers in pass coverage.
In run defense and tackling, though, Spillane was ranked among the best 35 linebackers on that list.
Steelers Success With Spillane in the Lineup
While the Steelers could use more speed at inside linebacker, there’s no denying Spillane has helped the team win.
Spillane has started 16 games in his NFL career, and the Steelers have gone 13-3 in those contests. Furthermore, the Steelers defense gave up more than 24 points just twice in those 16 games.
Over the last two seasons, the Steelers have gone 7-1 when Spillane starts. When he didn’t start, they owned an 11-13-1 record.
Even more interestingly, the Steelers were undefeated when Spillane was a three-down linebacker in 2022 as he described he wants to be. He played every snap against the New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers, Las Vegas Raiders and in the second matchups versus the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns.
The Steelers went 5-0 in those contests.
“He’s gotten an opportunity to play more plays, and he’s really taken advantage of it,” said Steelers defensive coordinator Teryl Austin in December. “He deserves every rep he’s getting.”
Spillane finished the 2022 season with a career-high 79 combined tackles, including 4 tackles for loss. He also had 2 quarterback hits, 1.0 sack and 4 pass defenses.
In addition to Spillane, Bush is also a pending free agent and fellow inside linebacker Myles Jack could be a cap casualty this offseason. With that in mind, it will be interesting to see if the Steelers make Spillane a priority in free agency.
If he returns, it will also be fascinating to see if he gets his wish to be a three-down linebacker to begin the season.