Although it’s certainly not new territory for the Pittsburgh Steelers this season, they will once again be without the services of their sole rookie starter this year, inside linebacker Ryan Shazier, who is missing his fifth game of the season with a new injury.
Both injuries that he has gone through during the regular season have come as the result of friendly fire, so it’s certainly not cause for alarm, nor should the ‘injury prone’ bell be ringing.
It just simply means that the defense will have to turn back to Sean Spence and Vince Williams, and as the two young backers have shown, that’s not such a bad fallback option. They may not be flawless (Shazier is certainly not there either), but they can play, as they showed last week against the Baltimore Ravens.
Not that the play highlight above is the most flattering example of that. Late in the first half, running back Justin Forsett caught a pass in front of Spence and took it up the left sideline for 24 yards. Spence slipped out of his break, which likely made the difference between tackling the catch and allowing an explosive play.
On this carry by Forsett early in the third quarter, Spence played more as the buck linebacker, engaging the fullback and forcing the running back inside through the hole the defense was funneling him into, while the backside caught up with him from behind for a short gain.
The drive on which the previously highlighted play occurred was stalled unceremoniously with a coverage sack by James Harrison, which was the difference between going for it on fourth and short and being forced to punt.
As implied by the term ‘coverage sack’, it was the back end of the defense stymying the quarterback’s targets that produced the sack, however, and Spence’s coverage on tight end Owen Daniels was key, taking away one of Joe Flacco’s primary outlets as he was flushed out of the pocket to his left.
Williams replaced Spence late in the game once the Steelers built up an insurmountable lead, while leaving about five minutes left on the clock. Were it under different circumstances, the play above would have forced a three and out, as this was on third and two. But the Ravens had no choice but to go for it being so far behind with so little time left.
At the snap, Williams was lined up at the line of scrimmage. Once the tight end flowed out of his coverage, he moved to the middle of the field to pick up the running back. Flacco looked his way, and Williams hammered him as the ball approached, even though it went wide.
He faced a similar play later in the game with about a minute to go, but he was dropped in deeper coverage. He provided a seemingly similarly hard hit, but the back didn’t go down, and was able to advance further upfield, as Williams also seemed to ding his shoulder for his efforts.