Former Michigan star Devin Bush is ready to shoulder Steelers’ linebacker load
Devin Bush isn’t worried if he has to play nearly 900 snaps again in 2020, just so long as he gets to play them.
Nor is he concerned if his inside linebacker partner is Vince Williams, just so long as they get the chance to be on the field.
“We’re just hoping for a regular season, hoping we get to go out there and play those 17 games and get a shot at the Super Bowl,” Bush said.
While the coronavirus pandemic has already canceled the NFL’s offseason training activities and limited what he can do to prepare for his second season with the Steelers, Bush said he and his teammates are focused on hoping the regular season can start on time. Or, at the very least, that a full season — 16 games, not 17 (that’s in 2021) — can be completed even if the start of the regular season is delayed.
For now, though, the pandemic shutdown has limited his ability to train and practice with his teammates like he normally would be able to do this time of year.
“It’s affected a lot,” Bush said Tuesday on a Zoom conference call with Pittsburgh-area media. “Without OTAs, just getting back on the field and get back in the groove, that was stopped. I’m just trying to stay active, stay in the playbook, stay in the film room, and don’t beat yourself up too hard on workouts because you still got a long season to go. I’ve just been staying active and staying on top of my stuff, and when that time comes I’ll be ready.”
Bush, who played at Michigan for three years (2016-18) and was Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and an All-American in his final season in 2018, will assume a larger share of the responsibility this season because of the loss of veteran Mark Barron. He started 15 games and played 889 snaps in 2019 — only Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt played more among the front seven — and was in the running for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
His playing time — more specifically, his percentage of playing time — will increase even more this season. Either way, he’s ready for an increased workload after coming through his rookie season without a major injury or setback.
“I don’t think it’s a good or bad thing,” Bush said. “Eight hundred reps can be more of a bad thing because that’s just saying we’re not really that good of an offense. With 800, it doesn’t bother me too much, nor do I think it’s a big load. I was able to handle it last year so I kind of got an idea what I’m stepping into.”
A bigger issue is who will line next to him.
The Steelers did not sign an inside linebacker in free agency and the closest thing they came to one in the draft was hybrid safety Antoine Brooks of Maryland, who was taken in the sixth round. And, in addition to Barron — who played 750 snaps — they lost backup Tyler Matakevich in free agency.
That leaves Ulysees Gilbert III, a sixth-round draft choice last year, as one of the few possibilities, though the idea of moving third-year safety Marcus Allen into that role has been discussed.
“It’s up to Ulysees to get on field,” Bush said. “I think he’s a really good player. He has all the intangibles, all the athleticism to get out there and play. But it’s up to him to put it all together.”
That leaves Williams, a former full-time starter who saw his playing time drastically reduced last season because of the presence of Barron. Williams played only 396 snaps in 2019 — the fewest since he became a starter in 2017 — because the Steelers were concerned about his ability to cover running backs and tight ends in their sub-package defenses.
That thinking is not about to change this season, putting the Steelers in a position — at least, right now — of determining the right player to pair with Bush.
“I have no doubt me and Vince can go out there and control the defense,” Bush said. “If it comes down to me and Vince taking all the reps, I don’t think you have a problem doing it.”
Just so long as they get to do it.