When the Pittsburgh Steelers finally got rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier back healthy, he returned to action on Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals, but he did so seeing time only on special teams, being kept off the field on defense.
Sean Spence, who has started in his absence, once again started this game, though Vince Williams ended up seeing the majority of snaps at inside linebacker as the Steelers turned to their nickel defense, particularly late in the game with a lead.
Spence, in his first year of playing professional football after missing his first two seasons due to injury, has no doubt had his ups and downs on the field, having been placed in a prominent role after such a long time out of football, but his effort against the Bengals was perhaps one of his better showings on the year.
On this early first quarter run, for example, he showed how he is able to use his size to advantage when he can play in a bit of space, eluding the right guard coming out to the second level in order to zero in on the running back, Jeremy Hill, and assist on the tackle for a first down run of four yards.
On the play following that run, Spence was covering Hill out of the backfield on a passing play when Andy Dalton targeted the running back. Spence hasn’t been so reliable in coverage this season, particularly in isolated scenarios, but he did well here, reading Hill’s feet and showing quickness to react as he broke to the left, tackling the catch for a gain of four yards to set up a third down play.
Toward the end of the quarter, Spence showed well again coming down hill against the run, this time with Giovani Bernard in the backfield. The play by the defensive line closed off the outside lane for the back, forcing him to cut it back inside, and Spence used his linemen to keep himself covered until he was able to get to the running back and make the tackle after a short gain.
On the following play, after the Bengals had used up a timeout, the Steelers sent a blitz against Dalton, rushing six, including Spence. With Cameron Heyward drawing the left tackle inside and Arthur Moats drawing the attention of the pulling guard, Spence was able to charge off the defensive right side into the backfield.
He collided with the running back, who eventually won the upper hand, but the disruption forced Dalton to tuck the ball and try to find space, which allowed Moats to come off his block and drag the quarterback down for a sack and a loss of three yards.