Clarity At ILB May Lead To More Defined Roles For Backups

Last offseason, the Pittsburgh Steelers were unsure exactly of what they had at the inside linebacker position outside of the veteran of the group, Lawrence Timmons. In two were second-year player Vince Williams and Sean Spence, who, entering his third year, had not played a meaningful down of football due to a gruesome knee injury.

Which is why the Steelers did not hesitate to pull the trigger on inside linebacker Ryan Shazier with the 15th overall pick in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft—and why they immediately plugged him into the starting lineup, hoping that he would quickly claim ownership of it.

Of course, by the end of his rookie season, he had only played about a quarter or so of the team’s snaps at the position, with the rest of it being divided between Spence, who received the lion’s share, and Williams, who carved out a niche in the nickel defense.

Much of this was predicated upon the fact that Shazier missed significant time due to multiple injuries, and the practice time missed, combined with the fact that his replacements had been performing reasonably well, meant that he had to wait his turn to fall back into the rotation.

But 2015 is a new year, and the former first-round draft pick is back in the starting lineup, arguably where he belongs, while Spence and Williams are back in the backup roles. Only this year the team is more confident in their ability to contribute.

If things go according to plan, however, there will be few occasions for Timmons and Shazier to ever come off the field. After all, they are the starters, and are meant to play just about every snap, if not every snap, barring injury. They are both first-round draft picks, and should command that level of playing time.

Which means, obviously, that Spence and Williams will find it difficult to get on the field on defense this year, provided that the starters stay healthy. But I wonder if it might also mean a more simplified, streamlined hierarchy on the depth chart at inside linebacker.

Last year, as mentioned, Spence and Williams split time taking turns filling the snaps that Shazier was missing. Spence played in the base defense, largely, while Williams played in the nickel, but inside linebackers coach Jerry Olsavsky maintains a belief in the capability of all of his players to perform all tasks, and does not concern himself with schemes or packages.

Perhaps more clarity, then, is in order, whereby Sean Spence becomes the backup at the mack linebacker position, where he is obviously best suited, while Williams serves as the backup to Timmons at the buck. Williams is perhaps the most ideally suited on the team to man the buck position as it is.

Of course, the circumstances could change things. If one of the two rises up to show himself to be the significantly better option to fill in at either inside spot, for example, that would be different. But the team saw last year that both of them could play. Perhaps focusing their energies on a specific position could help them grow even more, even as much as the two inside positions have merged over the years.

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