Devin Bush's push: A year after ACL injury, Steelers LB, ex-Wolverine evolving

Nolan Bianchi
The Detroit News

Pittsburgh — A year ago, Devin Bush appeared ready to make “the leap” Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has come to expect from his players during their second seasons in the NFL.

One awkward step against Cleveland changed everything.

Bush was tracking down Browns running back Ernest Jackson at Heinz Field last October when his left knee gave out, shredding the inside linebacker's ACL in the process.

Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Devin Bush

Up to that point, Bush hadn't missed a defensive snap all year, looking every bit the every-down difference-maker the Steelers had been searching for at linebacker since Ryan Shazier's career ended because of a spinal injury in December 2017.

Despite the setback, Bush doesn't consider 2020 a “lost” season. If anything, the injury helped him grow in ways that playing never could.

“It was personally just (about) building character, going through a tough time and being able to watch on the sideline and actually watch the game instead of being inside of it,” Bush said Thursday. "Watching it from a different perspective. So I gained a lot of knowledge just watching the game.”

The challenge now that he's fully recovered is translating the knowledge to performance. While Bush made his way back at warp speed — he returned to game action in the preseason against Philadelphia on Aug. 12, less than 10 months after undergoing surgery — he is trying to turn flashes of brilliance into something more sustainable.

Bush's No. 55 has been highly noticeable at times during Pittsburgh's 3-3 start. He sacked Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers on Oct. 3, did the same a week later to Denver's Teddy Bridgewater and recovered a fumble in overtime that set up the game-winning field goal against Seattle on Oct. 17.

Yet his splash play also included a moment of chaos. Bush picked up the ball deep in Seahawks territory and momentarily started sprinting the wrong way before pivoting in the right direction.

Consider it a symbol of his season. Bush will run out with the starters as usual when the Steelers visit Cleveland (4-3) on Sunday. After that, who knows? Bush's role appears to be evolving each week. The player who didn't miss a down before getting injured in 2020 has seen his playing time fluctuate in 2021.

Bush has yet to play more than 90% of the snaps in a given week, and saw the field for just 25 of the defense's 60 plays against the Broncos as Robert Spillane — who filled in capably last season after Bush went down — was given more responsibility in passing situations. Bush's snap count went back up against the Seahawks, but it's unclear how Bush's role may change this week against the NFL's best rushing team.

Bush isn't playing poorly by any stretch. Yet Bush isn't just any player. The Steelers felt so strongly about him they made the uncharacteristically aggressive decision to trade up in the 2019 draft and grab him with the 10th overall pick. They anticipated him being a fixture on the field and he was, at least he was right up until he planted his left leg in the turf only to have his knee buckle.

Defensive coordinator Keith Butler is preaching patience, pointing out the entire defense is still trying to find an identity as the season nears the midway point. Pittsburgh is 13th overall and 12th against the run this season after finishing third in both categories a year ago. That's on all 11 players on the field on a given play, not just Bush.

“I mean, the competition is too intense (in the NFL) just to come out and miss a long time and all of a sudden expect to be the same way that you were before you got hurt,” Butler said. “It’s not going to be that way. You got to keep working at it. And he is. He’s continued to work at it, and I think he’ll get better.”

Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick pointed out Bush's unusually fast recovery might have skewed reality a bit. The 23-year-old Bush's body might be good to go, but it takes time to get the rhythm and feel of being in a game where your job is to take on 300-pound linemen and 250-pound tight ends who tower over you.

“Just having him out there on the field is good for us, is beneficial for us,” Fitzpatrick said. "And I think over the course of this season and the course of time he’ll work back to where he used to be.”

And where Bush used to be is a three-down player. It's something he believes he still can be. That just doesn't mean he has to be one less than 400 days removed from a career-altering injury.

Asked if he still considers himself an every-down linebacker, Bush didn't hesitate."

“I think so,” he said. "You know, as of right now we’re just doing things differently. We’ve been turning to different things. But as long as we’re winning, I think that takes care of everything.”