It’s not as though they haven’t gotten used to it by now. In fact, over the course of the past several weeks, it’s been the norm. Pittsburgh Steelers rookie starting inside linebacker Ryan Shazier has been ruled out for next week’s game with an ankle injury.
That means the mack linebacker position will be once again handed over to Sean Spence, who has started four of the team’s nine games this year and logged over 300 snaps already, which is over 100 more than Shazier has.
Of course, Spence had just as much in-game playing experience as did Shazier coming into this season, as the third-year linebacker has known all too well what it’s like to battle injuries. That story has been told many times, but the point is that it took him some time to find his way on the field again, almost like a rookie.
What has helped him has been his three years already soaking in Dick LeBeau’s system, so the physical learning curve has been manageable. And over recent weeks, it seems that we’ve been starting to see the instinctive player that he was imagined to be when he was drafted.
Spence hasn’t been on his own, of course. Second-year buck linebacker Vince Williams was the primary starter at the position for the Steelers last year as a sixth-round rookie, but that trial-by-fire playing experience has helped put him in position to contribute this year.
He himself has logged close to 100 snaps this year, with 50 of them coming over the span of the past two weeks. When Shazier returned from injury the week before, the Steelers had him on a snap count, and it was Williams, rather than Spence, giving the rookie a rest. He played most of that game, in fact, and played quite well.
So now that we know the Steelers will be without Shazier once again, at least we can have some idea of what to expect from the inside linebacker position in his absence, since we’ve been able to get a good look at it during the four games, and parts of two others, that he has missed due to injury.
Spence and Williams have both been solid players for Pittsburgh this season, and their differing skill sets offer the team options in how to utilize them. When Williams is on the field, for example, Lawrence Timmons shifts over to the mack, which is an option that the coaching staff can choose to use strategically.
While it’s been a disappointment that the Steelers haven’t been able to get full usage out of their Plan A for the inside linebacker position, due to Shazier’s injuries, it has given them a chance to get a long look at Plan B. And with Shazier’s latest injury, we’ll have to wait that much longer before we ever see Plan A fully developed.