Even with rookie starting inside linebacker Ryan Shazier ostensibly appearing to return from an MCL sprain after missing the past four games, it would be surprising if the Pittsburgh Steelers don’t give a lot of snaps on Sunday to Sean Spence, the man who has filled the mack linebacker position for the past 18 quarters.
For one thing, it’s especially difficult for rookies to come back from prolonged injuries and be ready to step right back in from a mental standpoint. He’s had about a day and a half of practice in the past month or so.
But there’s also the fact that Spence, the slight be instinctive former Hurricane, seemed to finally be coming around as the Steelers’ game against the Houston Texans wore on. Sure, he bumbled away a few plays on the opening drive, but he started to settle down, particularly in the second half.
As mentioned, there were some hiccups early on, with this being the big one, but it had as much to do with Spence himself as it did with the defense. The Steelers were selling out for the run on a third and short play as the Texans encroached on field goal range.
With 10 players up against the line—sans the deep safety—it was a feast or famine call, gambling on the idea that the player in the position to make the play would make it. That gamble lost them 33 yards on this play as Spence, rushing off right end, failed to bring Arian Foster down when he was in reach.
There were a few other blips every now and then, but in general, it got better from there. Spence flowed to the ball nicely on this mid-second quarter carry, for example, before setting and planting against Alfred Blue for a short gain, with Lawrence Timmons also on the tackle.
It was the beginning of the third quarter in which Spence was particularly visible, however. On first down, he chased down the tight end to hold him just short of the first down, and then he proceeded to make the stop on second and one, as seen above.
With Jason Worilds holding the point against the tight end on the right side, Spence played the perimeter, which Foster naturally worked toward with the middle lanes clogged. Despite the size differential, Spence was also to stick the big back and halt his forward momentum as he dragged him down.
He also deserves an assist, in my estimation, on the third and one stop credited solely to Timmons. Though Foster appeared to be going down, Timmons had only a tenuous grasp of the back, and Spence came in to make sure he got down before approaching the sticks.
Though he had a more inconsistent night in coverage, his reaction time and attack on this Andre Johnson screen is what the Steelers were expecting when they drafted Spence, making the tackle after a modest gain as he beat the pulling linemen to the spot.