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 pessimistic side of the coin.
Question: Will Sean Spence still be a big presence in his second season back from injury?
Former 2012 third-round draft selection Sean Spence had a long time to wait in order to make his professional debut, spending his first two years in the league rehabbing a severe, career-threatening knee injury.
That he has returned to the field at all is already an immense success story, and an occasion to be celebrated generally. That he took on a significant role in the defense as the season progressed, and appeared to play unhindered by his damaged knee, was remarkable.
To presume that his career will continue on an upward trajectory, however, is premature, largely because the Steelers are no doubt anticipating second-year former first-round draft pick Ryan Shazier to be fully prepared to see full-time duty as the starting mack linebacker after missing much of his rookie season.
The Steelers, after all, put him in as a starter immediately, and he was only initially removed from the lineup due to injury. When he returned, he was behind in practice reps and preparation, truncating his role within the defense, which allowed Spence and Vince Williams to stake their claim for much of the rest of the season.
I don’t anticipate that that will be the case for a second straight season. The injuries that Shazier suffered all appeared to be of the freak accident variety, and do not suggest a chronic problem. And it’s always difficult for rookies to catch up once they begin missing time.
Shazier should be a much more complete player, the player that Pittsburgh envisioned when they drafted him, in his second season.
Because the Steelers do like the depth that they have at inside linebacker, chances are that they will make occasional use of Spence, as well as Williams, depending on the offensive look and defensive personnel on the field, but I do not anticipate Spence featuring prominently in the defense again, barring injury.