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Spillane's shot: Steelers LB primed to replace injured Bush

Cleveland Browns wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones tries to get past Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Robert Spillane (41) during an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020, in Pittsburgh. Spillane carved out a roster spot on the Steelers by becoming a special teams ace. He officially has a new title: the replacement for injured linebacker Devin Bush, who is out for the season after tearing the ACL in his left knee. (AP Photo/Justin Berl)

By WILL GRAVES AP Sports Writer

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Robert Spillane doesn’t have Devin Bush’s pedigree. He doesn’t have Bush’s speed or game experience either.

That doesn’t mean, however, that Spillane or the rest of the Pittsburgh Steelers believe he can’t fill in capably while Bush recovers from the torn ACL in his left knee he sustained in last Sunday’s win over Cleveland, an injury that ended the 2019 first-round pick’s season after just five games.

From the moment Spillane ran onto the field in the second quarter against the Browns while Bush slowly made his way to the sideline and ultimately to injured reserve, the message Spillane received from his teammates was simple: don’t worry about trying to be Bush-light.

“They told me ‘Rob, you belong out here. This is what you’re meant to do. So go out here and show everybody what we know you can do,'” Spillane said. “And that felt really good to hear from them.”

The player who’d been on the field for nine defensive snaps total during his brief three-year career before Sunday finished with six tackles in 30 snaps during a 38-7 dismantling of the Browns.

Heady territory for someone who wasn’t invited to the NFL scouting combine in the spring of 2018 after graduating from Western Michigan and fought his way onto the roster in Tennessee through an open tryout before doing the same in Pittsburgh in February 2019.

Spillane carved out a niche as a special teams ace and showed enough in practice that coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert opted against scouring the waiver wire looking for inside linebacker depth in the offseason after veteran Mark Barron was cut.

Their faith will now be tested with Bush scheduled to undergo surgery on Wednesday to repair his ACL, leaving Spillane as the top option to run out with the starters on Sunday when the unbeaten Steelers (5-0) travel to Tennessee (5-0).

It’s a fitting full-circle moment for Spillane. He was sitting at home in the Chicago suburbs in 2018 when the Titans reached out to offer him a look. He made the team and briefly graduated from the practice squad to the 53-man roster before being let go. He underwent a similar dance in Pittsburgh after earning a spot on the practice squad out of training camp in 2019. He was cut in late September and hung around for a couple of weeks hoping for a second chance. One arrived when he was re-signed to the practice squad in early October. A month later he was on the active roster. Now, he’ll get the first crack at lining up alongside veteran Vince Williams.

“In this business, you’ve got to be ready when your opportunity is called upon,” Spillane said. “I stayed in shape, working out and doing my thing, cardio and believing in myself.”

Consider it a requirement to stay in the family business. Spillane’s grandfather, Johnny Lattner, won the Heisman Trophy in 1953 while at Notre Dame before being taken in the first round by the Steelers in the 1954 draft. A severe knee injury ended his NFL career after just one season. Lattner, who died in 2016 at 83, followed his grandson’s development closely. The irony that they took very different paths to the same destination isn’t lost on Spillane.

“I just know he would be very proud of me,” Spillane said. “He’s always seen the work I put in … I know he’s looking down and he’s proud of the man I’ve become, not only as a football player but a man as well.”

While Tomlin stressed the Steelers will mix and match their linebacker combination at times, with Ulysses Gilbert and converted safety Marcus Allen among possible options to see spot duty, for now the majority of the snaps in Bush’s spot will go to Spillane. While the gap in their respective resumes is large — Bush was taken with the 10th overall pick in 2019 while Spillane didn’t even earn an invite to the combine — Tomlin pointed out the gap in experience isn’t nearly as large.

Yes, Bush hadn’t missed a snap this year. Still, he is just in his second season and spent just 4 1/2 games wearing the green dot given to the defensive signal-caller. Tomlin declined to say whether Spillane will carry those duties going forward, he made it very clear Spillane won’t be given any slack just because he isn’t Bush.

“Through game-planning we will look at options in terms of dividing the labor, but Robert will be the primary man responsible for replacing Devin,” Tomlin said. “We’re excited about watching him play and play to the standard of our expectations.”

NOTES: RG David DeCastro (abdomen) and WR Diontae Johnson (back), both of whom sat out against the Browns, will practice on Wednesday. … FB Derek Watt (hamstring), CB Mike Hilton (shoulder) will be limited early in the week.

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