While the Pittsburgh Steelers may have gained some tangible evidence of improvement, improving their win total by three games and hosting a playoff game as a division champion for the first time in four seasons, there is no doubt that the team is far from a finished product.
No team, of course, is a finished product in the offseason. Every team loses players to free agency and retirement, and replaces them through the same free agency process, as well as the draft.
With all of the change that occurs during the offseason, it’s often difficult to predict how a particular team might fare. They may wind up holding the Lombardi trophy or the first overall draft pick when all is said and done.
In order to gain a better feel for not only the issues facing the team this year, but how those issues might play out, it’s useful to take the devil’s advocate approach. This is the optimistic side of the coin.
Question: Will Sean Spence still be a big presence in his second season back from injury?
The Steelers were fairly high on Sean Spence in 2012 when they used their third-round draft pick to take him, perhaps eventually envisioning what we saw for much of the 2014 season, with Spence playing the mack and Lawrence Timmons finally sliding over to the buck.
Of course, that plan was dramatically derailed in the final preseason game of Spence’s rookie season when he went after a loose ball. He planted his leg down awkwardly and it wrenched backward, in the process shredding his knee ligaments and causing nerve damage.
The young linebacker faced a long road of recovery that saw him miss his first two years in the league, but, finally, in 2014, he was able to return to the football field and did not appear in any way physically limited by his reconstructed knee.
Of course, the Steelers, by this point, weren’t really planning to have him available, so they drafted Ryan Shazier in the first round and immediately installed him as the starter. But once the regular season started, he showed that he wasn’t quite yet up to the task, even with his elite speed.
Then he himself suffered a series of injuries, which opened the way for Spence to start for large chunks of the season, playing well intermittently, but also showing some rust.
Nearly two years is a long way to be away from football, let alone to be away from just experiencing the live contact. No doubt 2014 was a curious year for Spence as he, in some sense, rediscovered how to play football.
And that suggests that he could have a sort of year one to year two growth of his own, as is often talked about for rookies, only his growth will some more from the physical than mental point of view.
The Steelers grew comfortable working their inside linebackers in and out, and they quite like Spence, as well as other players. It’s certainly conceivable that he is even given the opportunity to win the starting job outright, but even if he doesn’t, I suspect that he will still be rotated in heavily, perhaps even in packages with three inside linebackers on the field.