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  • James Pike

NFL Week 8: Breakout Performance of the Week

By James Pike.

Playoffs in sight

Another week goes by in the 2020 NFL season, and it appears as though things are starting to ramp up as we push forward into the second half of the season. This week in particular had the potential to have huge implications for teams wanting to separate themselves in the playoff race in their division.

The Green Bay Packers had the opportunity to improve to 6-1 with a win over the faltering Minnesota Vikings and establish control of the NFC North, but Dalvin Cook almost single handedly caused one of the year's biggest upsets. Chicago could not capitalize as they were beaten at home by a tough New Orleans Saints side fuelled by another unreal game from Alvin Kamara.

The Tennessee Titans have now lost two consecutive games after an outstanding performance from the Cincinnati Bengals who are starting to find a rhythm in 2020. Joe Burrow and the Bengals offence were rolling as they were able to upset the heavily favoured Titans. New England had an opportunity to put themselves back in the hunt for the AFC East as they moved the ball down the field in the closing moments of their week 8 clash with the Buffalo Bills, however a gut wrenching Cam Newton fumble in the red zone with 30 seconds saw the once dominant Patriots fall to 2-5 on the season.

There were plenty of games which on paper looked like they were going to be duds which ended up being some of the most exciting contests of the week, nevertheless these all paled in comparison to the headline contest of the week which produced a break out performance from an unlikely source.

A marquee matchup between AFC North heavyweights

Week 8’s marquee matchup was the battle for the AFC North between the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers, and it was a game filled with outstanding performances throughout. TJ Watt was his usual dominant self, wreaking havoc on the Baltimore offensive line. J.K Dobbins, Gus Edwards and the Baltimore rushing attack were able to find success against the Steelers run defence in a way that no team before the Ravens had even come close to all season long. Chase Claypool once again grabbed a crucial go ahead score for Pittsburgh in the fourth quarter for what was eventually the game winning score.

This game had impact players and superstars from both sides all over the field, but when the dust settled one player’s impact on the game stood out the most. And it was a name no one even knew until a couple weeks ago.

Robert Spillane up until two weeks ago was predominantly a member of the Steelers special teams unit. He was rarely seen starting on the defensive side of the ball, and when he did for a brief stage towards the back end of the 2019 season his numbers were far from eye-catching to say the least. Sunday however, Spillane stood up and announced his presence to the world.

His impact on this game was immediate – literally and figuratively – as on the very first series of the game he dropped back into coverage, read Lamar Jackson’s eyes perfectly and jumped in front of the route and nabbed the interception. He then proceeded to walk into the end zone giving the Steelers the lead within the first minute of the contest. This was the moment that fans will remember the most from Spillane’s performance in Pittsburgh’s memorable win on Sunday, but this was far from the only impact the 24-year-old linebacker would have on the game.

The former Western Michigan product was all over the stat sheet on Sunday; finishing the game leading his team in total tackles with 11 (10 of which were solo tackles). He had two pass deflections to go along with his pick six and also recovered a fumble in the final two minutes of the game as the Steelers were able to make an important stand on 4th down to all but put an end to the game. With so much star power on the defensive side of the football for Pittsburgh, it was a man who very few fans had even heard of who had the biggest impact in arguably the most important game of the 2020 season so far.

Tomlin shows faith in special teams ace

Huge credit has to go to Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin who showed faith in Spillane to step into such a huge game and make an impact. Tomlin is simply one of the best coaches in the league at being able to get the best out of his players, and he has once again proved himself to be one of the absolute best coaches in the league. Losing a player the calibre of Devin Bush to injury would be devastating to pretty much any other team in the league; Mike Tomlin however simply turns to the next man on the depth chart and instills a confidence in them to go out and do their job.

That is exactly what Spillane did on Sunday.

Many will argue that Mike Tomlin’s greatest ever achievement happened last season, when he was able to coach a team which was completely decimated by injuries and was down to its third string quarterback for most of the season to an 8-8 record. This season however he has transformed this group into an absolute powerhouse. Getting Big Ben Roethlisberger back, along with adding playmakers on both sides of the ball has led the Steelers to an undefeated start to the season. In fact, the last Pittsburgh was 7-0 was way back in 1978, when Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth formed one of the most deadly offenses the league had seen and went on to win the Super Bowl. Surely a good omen for the 2020 edition of the Pennsylvania based franchise.

As much praise as the Steelers and Mike Tomlin deserve for being able to find contributors whenever they need them the most; plaudits have to go to Robert Spillane for stepping up to the plate when his team needed him the most.

With the previously mentioned Devin Bush now out for the remainder of the season, Spillane now has an enormous opportunity to establish himself on an already stacked Steelers defense. The Steel Curtain is once again back in Pittsburgh as they have been completely overwhelming teams this entire season.

Before Sunday’s game against the Ravens they had rendered running games completely useless with the exception of a couple big plays here and there. They are able to get pressure on the quarterback at will with TJ Watt and the rest of the defensive line, and they have a bonafide ball hawk in the secondary in Minkah Fitzpatrick who has developed into one of the league’s premier safeties since joining the Black and Gold. Now it appears we have yet another player emerging who could become a serious contributor going forward.

Spillane was an undrafted free agent in the 2018 draft before being released from the Tennessee Titans practice squad and has never been a household name. However, if performances like the one he put in on Sunday start to become the norm, then a rise from completely unknown commodity to superstar could be on the horizon.


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