Before he headed home for the offseason, Robert Spillane asked the Pittsburgh Steelers video staff to compile three visual databases for his spring homework assignment:
• All interceptions recorded by inside linebackers in the 2021 season.
• All forced fumbles produced by inside linebackers.
• All sacks registered by inside linebackers.
“I love to study those plays because those are all game-changing plays,” Spillane said. “Those are plays that will affect the outcome of games. How can I find a way to make one of those plays?”
Spillane’s film study paid dividends early in training camp at Saint Vincent. In one of the first practices, Spillane stepped in front of a Mitch Trubisky pass, intercepted it and took off down the left side of the field for a long return.
“It’s about how can I do something different,” Spillane said. “It’s finding ways to make a play. ‘How can I get greedy’ is my terminology.”
Spillane could be parlaying his greediness into an increased role on the Steelers defense. Entering his fourth season with the Steelers, Spillane is listed among the starters at inside linebacker on the initial depth chart released by coach Mike Tomlin.
Where new acquisition Myles Jack is marked as the first-team right inside linebacker, Spillane is part of the left inside linebacker competition with former No. 10 overall draft pick Devin Bush.
On the depth chart, Bush “OR” Spillane is the projected starter. The designation could be a way of motivating Bush, who struggled to recapture his first-round form last year when he was coming back from ACL surgery. Or it could be a way of recognizing Spillane and his play at the position in 2021 when he started four games and played in 14 overall.
Based on the way Spillane attacked his offeason workouts, he’s not settling for anything less than showing he’s a starting caliber NFL linebacker.
Some of the workouts Spillane does with his eyes closed so he can, in his words, “visualize success.”
“Football is never far from my mind, so I keep it at the forefront 365 days out of the year,” he said.
Spillane added muscle in the offseason and reported to camp at 235 pounds, which is six higher than his listed playing weight. The workouts were designed to maintain speed while helping Spillane to be agile enough to roam the middle of the field.
“People look at athleticism and think it’s how high you can jump and how fast you can run a 40, but athleticism goes way beyond that,” he said. “I think I do a good job of understanding what it takes to be a total athlete: studying the game. Yeah, you have to be fast. Yeah, you have to be able to jump high, but it’s also understanding your footwork within the game and finding ways to make plays. I love doing that.”
When discussing Spillane, former defensive coordinator Keith Butler would gush about the hit Spillane put on Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry near the goal line in a 2020 game. Spillane wants to show he’s dependable in pass coverage, too, which is why he took pleasure in intercepting Trubisky early in camp.
“I wasn’t technically where I needed to be, but I’m trying to find ways to make that big play,” he said. “Maybe the coverage is over here, but I’m seeing what I’m seeing from the quarterback so I can come off my coverage and make a play.”
Jack, an 82-game starter in his six years with Jacksonville, has leaned on Spillane to get a better grasp of the Steelers defense.
“We’re the same age, but he’s, obviously, been here longer,” Jack said. “He knows the defense. Rob keeps me on point. He’s constantly talking. Same with D-Bush. We’re just constantly talking, and that communication is going to allow all of us to play faster.”
Ask Spillane, and he’s apt to say that he’s in competition with himself more than just Bush. And he rattled off Buddy Johnson, Marcus Allen, Ulysees Gilbert and rookie Mark Robinson as linebackers who shouldn’t be overlooked.
“I love this group of guys because nobody is afraid to share knowledge with each other,” Spillane said. “We all want what is best for each other.”
Spillane already has made a favorable impression on the newest member of the defensive staff. Brian Flores, the former Miami Dolphins head coach, said he has taken notice of Spillane in his brief time with the Steelers as a senior defensive assistant who helps with the linebackers.
“Rob is smart and tough, and he works his butt off,” Flores said. “He’s made a few plays out here already. He’s a guy who goes above and beyond to make sure he is prepared and ready to go. … He’s has been fun to coach. He challenges his teammates and me in meetings. He wants to know what we’re doing on everything.
“It’s been a good thing.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at email@example.com or via Twitter .