After waiting out almost every other team in the NFL, the Pittsburgh Steelers finally decided to dive into the free agent market, signing linebacker Jon Bostic. Bostic is entering year six in the NFL, but last season saw a career high in 14 starts. What did the Steelers see in those 14 starts that makes him worthy of bringing in, and will he be the person who has to replace Ryan Shazier, at least for the 2018 season?
One of the biggest issues with Bostic and the reason he waited into the second wave of free agency to sign are his injury concerns. Four of his five seasons saw missed games with an injury and the last two saw him on the injured reserve.
A back injury for former second-round pick, along with coaching changes in Chicago gave him just two years with the team that drafted him. An ankle injury got Bostic off on the wrong foot with the New England Patriots, and he never caught on, starting in one game while being active in 11.
From there, he was traded to the Detroit Lions but never took a snap for the club. Foot surgery early in his stint placed him on the IR. While he did finish last season with Indianapolis on the IR as well, he missed the last two weeks of the season on a losing team. Entering free agency, there is a real chance Bostic and the Colts took the safe route with a potentially minor knee injury. Still, back, foot, ankle, and knee are all red flags that come up when it comes to the long-term stability of Bostic.
One of the most underrated losses that came from Ryan Shazier was his leadership and ability to communicate. Everyone can see the speed, size, and power of Shazier, but he also called the plays, jumped routes, and got his teammates aligned.
In the playoffs, without Shazier, you saw plays like the one below. Sean Spence runs into Vince Williams, who looks lost. Spence is going the wrong way, and Wiliams is not reacting before the easy completion to the flats is made. At the very least, this would not happen on the watch of Jon Bostic.
Bostic called plays for the Colts last season and helped get his team in line. While it was not a good defense, Bostic proved to be one of the more valuable players on the unit due to his leadership.
The play below is the best example of what he can bring. He reads the play and slides his line to fill the right gaps. His adjustment forces DeShone Kizer to leave the pocket. Bostic is in zone and comfortably passes off his first man to maintain and shut off the slot receiver. He then has his eyes on the quarterback, and makes his break, forcing Kizer out of bounds.
He is able to pass the call off and maintain his position.
Bostic is able to make an adjustment based off of what he sees. This is not a primary skill set that any other linebacker on the team carries.
This leadership and understanding of his role passes off to his run defense, as he showed to be solid in that area last season. While Bostic will not make the game-changing plays that Ryan Shazier can make, he also will not take himself out of plays, a drawback to the style of play Shazier brought.
Below is a great example of his discipline. While the line is blocking hard to the right, he maintains his gap and notices the open backdoor off of the left tackle. Bostic maintains his role and does not over pursue to the right, trying to blow up the play. Instead, he helps shut down the back lane and make close off the hole.
Bostic is able to leave the hole open for Isaiah Crowell just long enough for him to want to cut up into it. Then, he pounces and closes the gap quickly.
Bostic is able to read the tight end motioning across the line of scrimmage. Watch him roam from right to left and then fill the gap, stay clean and make the tackle.
Bostic does a good job of staying clean in the running game to make plays like the one above. He stays low and hides behind defensive lineman, so running backs have a hard time finding where he is. Like in the play below, watch how swiftly he shuffles as he flows to the ball and closes the gap. He gives Crowell a strong hit to finish off the great read.
His ability to move so quick and so low to the ground is what gets him to shoot free underneath the Seahawks tackle.
Below, he again is able to read the play, dip below the guard and get into the backfield to shut down the run before it starts.
The Steelers saw his range and ability to evade blocks first hand. On a reverse to the speedy Martavis Bryant, Bostic saw it all the way. He got out ahead of Alejandro Villanueva, and beat Vance McDonald to set the edge and end the play before it had a chance.
Again, a center in space does not have a chance to get his hands on Bostic. Bostic is also strong with his hands and does a good job disengaging from blocks to make plays in the running game.
While Bostic can get to the right place, his timing and form can be off at times. He is an overall strong tackler, but can miss a few with poor form.
Bostic also may lack the long speed to consistently get to the sideline. Working through traffic, he is able to shift quickly. However, the all-out sprint is not his best attribute.
The questions in long speed may come up more against the pass than the run. Bostic is overall comfortable in coverage, but is not strong in man, especially down the field. He is slow to get his hips turned and in plays where he has to turn his body while maintaining speed, he will usually give up a step.
While the play below is in zone, you can see how he is able to lose a step when having to flip his hips.
However, it is worth noting that he has good change of direction and ability to slow down and recognize routes. He is able to hang with Tyler Kroft down the field and shut down the comeback route.
In the play below, he is matched up on Todd Gurley. With the quick breaks laterally, he is much more comfortable than his movements down the field.
Play action has him shifting right. However, he is able to recognize the play, pick up Luke Wilson and follow him across the field.
Overall, the change of direction and recognition of route concepts makes him an stronger bet in zone than following receivers down the field in man.
Bostic is able to slide out towards the slot and maintain his zone. He understands he passed off the slot option upfield, so no other receiver is on his side. He latches onto the outside receiver across the field as he follows the quarterback.
Bostic is able to read Tom Savage like a book and sink back into the zone. He is able to get his hand on the pass and break it up.
Like the play above, the Colts used him a lot to sink into the middle of the field with coverage over the top. His job was to take away underneath routes across the middle of the field. The play below shows the value of this. Bostic is able to stay close to the line for play action. However, he is able to bail, turn around and find the routes breaking over the middle. He is able to break and get to his spot, completely shutting off any room for error to miss Will Fuller short on this pass.
This does not completely change the Steelers draft plans. They are still going to have to take a linebacker in the first two rounds. Bostic is a smart and instinctive player. That is something that was not in the linebacker room when Shazier left. That is something that could not be replaced by a rookie.
However, betting on him to stay on the field is an issue. Even on the field, it is clear he is limited. Especially in top-end speed and athleticism. He is not a playmaker. With so many lower body injuries that is hardly surprising. It also makes it a tough bet to bring back.
However, next season Bostic can start. Whoever, the Steelers draft, they have a veteran who has shown savviness to stay in the league this long. Ryan Shazier is expected to be in the locker room as well so the leadership group around a rookie will be strong.
If anything, this may have just signaled that the team is looking to take a free safety in the first round rather, than linebacker. They could take a linebacker with their second pick, and if Bostic does get hurt down the line he will at least be more mature at that time.
The odds would be on Bostic to head into Latrobe as the starter next to Vince Williams in August. How long that maintains may depend on how late the team takes a linebacker, and how quickly he progresses.
For the here and now, the team has a stop gap starter at the position. That is not something they could say when they went out and lost their Divisional Round playoff game at the Jacksonville Jaguars. While it should not be a sign that the job is done, it is tough to look at the signing as anything but a positive.