One year ago Robert Spillane was the guy who started the season that no one had even heard of and who finished the season as a critical element holding down the center of their defense. So it was a no-brainer that the Steelers would make him an Exclusive Rights Free Agent tender to keep him in Pittsburgh.
- A year has passed, and Spillane has now added another 14 games to his tape.
He’s also eligible for restricted free agency where tenders are projected to begin at the 2.4 million mark. Has Spillane done enough to earn one? Let’s find out.
Capsule Profile of Robert Spillaine’s Career with the Steelers
Going into the 2020 season, Robert Spillane conventional wisdom held that Robert Spillane was the ONE player the Steelers could not afford to put on the field. Those fears came to fruition in the Steelers home game against the Browns when Devin Bush tore his ACL, forcing Spillane into the line up.
Spillane answered the call, and the Steelers closed out a 38-7 win. He followed the next week with a hellacious goal line stop on Derrick Henry. A week later, he snagged Lamar Jackson’s 2nd pass of the game and returned it 33 yards for a touchdown, providing crucial points in the Steelers 28-24 win.
Spillaine continued his solid steady play until he got injured in the Steeler loss to Washington, and Pittsburgh closed the season going 1-4. And while that oversimplifies things greatly to chalk that up to losing Spillaine, the Steelers defense missed him.
- Going into training camp the hope was that Spillaine would win the starting job over Vince Williams.
Robert Spillane saw plenty of playing time for the Steelers in 2021, starting 4 games while taking the field for 37% of the team’s defensive snaps. He also participated in 61% of the teams special teams snaps. All told, he made 56 tackles and was the best inside linebacker against the run.
The Case for the Steelers Resigning Robert Spillane
Inside linebacker is a weakness for the Steelers and that was not something we were supposed to be able to say nearly 3 years after the Devin Bush trade.
But a weakness it is.
In two seasons worth of work, Robert Spillane has shown that while he might not be a long-term answer or a full time starter at inside linebacker, he is certainly a capable contributor. He has also proven himself to be a solid tackler and is stout against the run and this defense needs run defenders.
At 2.4 million for a season, Spillane offers and upgrade over a veteran minimum free agent and he still has some upside.
The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Spillane
The Steelers defense wasn’t soft in the middle. No, Pittsburgh’s defense was outright porous in the middle. Yes, Robert Spillane was better against the run, but is anyone ready to confuse him with Vince Williams circa 2015 or 2016? No.
And even if he can improve against the run, “speed is the one thing you can’t teach” and Spillane doesn’t have the speed to cover tight ends let alone wide recievers coming out of backfield. That makes him a 2 down player at best. And Jon Bostic experiment taught us if you have a starting inside linebacker who is strong against the run but can’t cover, you don’t have starting inside linebacker.
The Steelers can invest that 2.4 million elsewhere.
Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Robert Spillane
If anything, this decision is more of a no-brainer in this year than it was last spring. Joe Schobert could very well be a cap casualty and, for whatever reason, Devin Bush is clearly struggling to return to his pre-ACL injury form.
- Right now Robert Spillane isn’t Steelers best inside linebacker, but he is their most consistent one.
And Spillane is certainly their most cost-effective inside linebacker. And if the Steelers secure upgrades in both free agency and the 2022 NFL Draft, Spillane has already shown he’s a reliable presence coming off the bench.