Earlier this offseason, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin basically said that the starting jobs across about half of the defense can be deemed as legitimately up for grabs in training camp and the preseason this year. This is, of course, not exactly the norm for a team who won double-digit games, along with a division title, in the year prior.
But that is indeed where the Steelers find themselves, with, arguably, three positions in the secondary, and another three at the linebacker level, open for competition. The defensive line is the only unit on defense that has some manner of stability within the starting lineup.
I believe the most interesting competition to watch will take place at inside linebacker next the Lawrence Timmons, where there are three players with starting experience, each of whom logged at least 250 snaps a year ago.
While it may be true that Ryan Shazier has the simplest path to the starting spot opposite Timmons, it would be false to say that the job is his, by any means. He may have the most pure talent of all three contestants, but he also has the least amount of playing time and experience.
The Steelers may have erred when they handed Shazier the starting job a season ago. No doubt they may have rubbed Vince Williams the wrong way, who technically was playing the position for most of the previous season, even if he was frequently subbed out. But he was the only one of the roster who’d done so.
Sean Spence was probably more understanding, due to the fact that he wasn’t even sure himself if he would be able to play. But as the practices progressed, and he started a game in the preseason and tested his knee, perhaps he, too, felt he deserved to be the starter.
After all, nobody knew the defense better than Spence, who had already been learning the system for two years as he recovered from injury. And he had always been an instinctive player to begin with.
It was Spence who ended up as the primary player and starter at the mack linebacker spot anyway after Shazier started to pile up injuries in the regular season. He started nine games, making 53 tackles in the regular season, and notching a sack in each of his last two games played.
There’s no question that Spence acclimated himself well enough last year to be in the conversation to start at inside linebacker in 2015. It’s also reasonable to predict a jump in performance, given that he was out of football for basically two seasons and, from a physical standpoint, was a rookie last year.
The truth is that Shazier hasn’t shown yet that he needs to be in the starting lineup right away. That could change, quite easily, but that is not the state of affairs as we see it now. Shazier may have all the speed in the world, but Spence is one of the more naturally instinctual players on the team. If he could show an improvement in getting off or avoiding blocks, it would be unfair to exclude him from the conversation.