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PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Devin Bush based on a thorough scouting report over the past 12 months.

Making a blockbuster draft-day trade is never that simple, though.

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It’s about timing, opportunity and growth from the player and the team. A series of roster decisions over the past five years caused Pittsburgh to retool its once-proud defense with an infusion of speed. A demanding ex-NFL father pushed Bush to the brink, until he was a versatile linebacker and leader for any defense.

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The culmination of those paths led Pittsburgh to its splashiest Day 1 move since securing Troy Polamalu in 2003, moving up 10 spots in a trade with the Denver Broncos to select Bush, a two-time captain with Michigan.

“Super loyalty,” Bush calls it.

While Bush burned leg muscles and smoothie calories on his way here, the Steelers burned gas miles to ensure he got to Pittsburgh.

Each week, a 9-year-old Bush faced a defensive drill that enervated the strongest quads, courtesy of dad.

The ball carrier had 30 yards in front of him with an open field to navigate. The defender was tasked with bringing him down somehow, some way, with no help.

Devin Bush Sr., then coach of the youth Pasadena Panthers in Pembroke Pines, Florida, expected his son to cut off angles, attack space and give ground to set up unexpected explosion.

“[In my son] I could see a big kid that I could treat like a cornerback,” said Bush Sr., an eight-year NFL safety from 1995-02 with the Atlanta Falcons, St. Louis Rams and Cleveland Browns. “I wasn’t going to limit him to one thing. Make the hardest parts of the game easier. Use your brain when your body gets fatigued.”
The Steelers have had an eye on Devin Bush for a long time and believe he’s a perfect scheme fit. AP Photo/Mark Humphrey
From an early age, Bush completed an NFL-style weekly schedule: film work Mondays, off Tuesdays, practices Wednesday and Thursday, walk-through Friday, game Saturday.

Bush Sr. admits riding his son “to the point of embarrassment” during film work to ensure he was ready for anything, although privately he raved about his son’s quickness, toughness and instincts.

He rewarded those traits in his own way: with post-practice trips to Jamba Juice, father and son celebrating over matching Mango-A-Go-Go smoothies.

“With whey protein,” Bush Sr. said.

As Bush saw the fruit years later as a blue-chip player in South Florida, the Steelers were trying to close their own 30-yard gap.

Dismayed by 8-8 seasons in 2012 and ’13, the Steelers reimagined a defense built on speed and sacks. Once-great veterans such as Ike Taylor and Polamalu had lost a step in the open field. The Steelers spent the 15th overall pick in 2014 on Ryan Shazier, whose 4.4 speed offset any concerns over his 6-foot-1, 237-pound frame.

Shazier was so gifted he once beat out the Steelers’ receiving corps in a length-of-field race after a practice.

The NFL game was changing, and coach Mike Tomlin was ready to counter the spread-out passing games that neutralized traditional defense. That meant more defensive backs on the field, and more players who could run like Shazier, an eventual two-time Pro Bowler. Whoever could cover receivers was welcome in the Steelers’ nickel and dime coverages.

“The emphasis in today’s NFL is about sub-package football because of the number of multiple-receiver sets that you see,” Tomlin said in 2014. “Significant discussion regarding schematics revolves around that.”

There’s coach praise, and then there’s Don Brown’s praise of Bush.

The Michigan defensive coordinator has coached college football for nearly four decades, but can’t help gushing over Bush, whose ability to chase down running backs goes so far beyond good that Brown calls it “uncanny.”

Bush’s character isn’t unblemished but “tremendous,” the coach adds.

Asked if Bush has any red flags on or off the field, Brown yells over the phone, “ZE-RO. TRE-MEN-DOUS.”
Devin Bush Sr. played eight NFL seasons, including four with the Falcons. Scott Halleran/ALLSPORT/Getty Images
“There’s nothing this guy can’t do. I don’t know one thing he can’t do,” Brown said.

Bush proved that to Brown over time. He sat next to Brown in every film session, often to his left, diagnosing the play before his coach and relaying it to his fellow linebackers.

Scouts often asked Brown whether Bush, at 5-foot-11 and 234 pounds, could handle the rigors of the NFL running game. Brown told each one of them to settle down and ignore the size, enjoy the ride.

The Steelers never expressed those concerns to Brown.

Bush entered 2018 with a near-complete game but improved mightily using his hands to withstand 290-pound linemen looking to engulf him. His ability to anticipate plays usually gets him past those linemen long before then.

“Some guys just can’t quantify it. He can,” Brown said. “Some guys have it and some don’t. He gets it and gets it fast. You hand that ball off to the tailback, I have a good feeling in my stomach we’ll get him on the ground because of Devin.”

It was at Michigan, as the face of the defense, where Bush realized the power of his father’s tough-handed teachings.

“Sometimes [as a youth] I felt like I didn’t want to play football anymore, but as I got older and understood what he was pushing me through, he really got me ready for moments like this,” Bush said.

Brown saw Tomlin at Michigan’s 2018 pro day and started to do the math. Shazier suffered a severe spinal injury in December 2017, and despite defeating the odds to walk again, is on the team’s physically unable to perform list two years later.

Tomlin had just coached a championship-caliber team forced into a makeshift linebacker lineup of veterans and journeymen to replace Shazier. The Steelers capped a 13-3 season with a disappointing 45-42 loss to Jacksonville in the divisional playoff.

Bush wasn’t yet eligible for the draft, but the seed was planted.

“If you think about a replacement for Ryan Shazier, who would it be when you think of guys across the country?” Brown said. “I don’t know if you need to be a rocket scientist when you figure it out.”

Tomlin, who is known to keep close tabs on college talent each year, “had a handle on” Bush entering the 2018 season, Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert recalled.

The scouting department went to work, with Colbert and three other staff members visiting Ann Arbor for research that fall. That work intensifies after a player declares for the draft, so three different assistant coaches got involved after Bush made his decision in December.

The Steelers saw him play live games, visited with him at the NFL scouting combine and dined with him and other Michigan players before their pro day in March.

All seven evaluators slapped a first-round grade on Bush, who emerged as a potential top-10 prospect.

“He was as complete of an evaluation at this phase,” Colbert said. “We interviewed a lot of Michigan players through the draft process, and it was unanimous in terms of who their unquestioned leader was, and that was attractive to us as well.”

Bush had the leadership component and could cover pass-catchers in space, but Tomlin liked something else, too: the ability to rush the passer. Bush loves to hit.

“I think that was as exciting to me as his coverage,” Tomlin said.

Bush entered draft night with the belief he wouldn’t get past Cincinnati at No. 11. Acquiring Bush would require a major jump by Pittsburgh, which held the 20th overall pick. The Steelers had talked to Denver (No. 10) in the hours before the first round kicked off to discuss potential parameters.

In giving up a 2019 second-rounder and a 2020 third-rounder for the right to jump 10 spots, Colbert kept coming back to this: Bush was worth it.

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“Where we had Devin rated, we didn’t feel guilty trading up to get him,” Colbert said. “He wasn’t the 15th player on our board by any means. This is a unique football player, and it was across the board in our evaluations.”

Meanwhile, Bush Sr. hoped his son landed with one of four teams based on defensive pedigree and scheme: Broncos, Steelers, Packers or Chargers.
As the Broncos’ melted minutes off the clock, the Bush family, positioned at the draft in Nashville, Tennessee, began to wonder whether Denver was interested at all. Then they saw the Steelers’ move flash across the television screen.

Seconds later, Bush Sr. looked at his son, who was about to take a phone call.

“To me, his face said, ‘Thank you. Yes!’ Bush Sr. said. “I was like, ‘No way.’ Pittsburgh takes pride in playing defense. That’s what we wanted.”

Just like those drills in the park, Bush didn’t need long to close space.

He leaned into his new team immediately, already setting a tone for a 2019 Steelers defense that found a prototype in its rebuild.

“It doesn’t matter what the score of the game is, what the outcome of the game is, we’re going to come get you,” Bush said.

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