The Pittsburgh Steelers have had to field a starting defense that was without its starting mack linebacker for the past two games, after second-year inside linebacker Ryan Shazier suffered a shoulder injury late in the team’s impressive first victory of the season.
In that contest, the former first-round draft pick racked up 15 tackles, including 11 solo tackles, and three for a loss, recorded his first career sack, which went for a substantial loss, recovered a fumble, and forced another fumble, though the offense was able to recover it.
It was his breakout performance that proved to everybody that he has the ability to be a difference maker and an impact player on a defense that had been starving for one. It also showed just how clearly ahead of his peers he is at this point in their respective careers, in spite of the fact that he is the youngest.
Over the course of the past two games, it was fourth-year linebacker Sean Spence starting and logging the lion’s share of snaps, and while he has had his moments, he is clearly not on Shazier’s level, even when considering his strengths.
Spence is naturally undersized for the position, so it’s no surprise that he was often unable to get off of blocks during the past two weeks, in spite of the fact that he looked improved in that area during the preseason.
But one of his defining attributes was his diagnosis of plays and his quick see-to-do. While this showed up in a big way when he made a stop on special teams on a fake punt attempt late in the game, I think we have seen from Shazier that his elite speed and early diagnosis of plays is without peer on this roster.
While Shazier has a tendency to miss a couple of tackles per game, perhaps the biggest area of his body of work that still needs fine tuning, most of his misses are a result of aggressiveness, rather than being overmatched, but the opposite is the case for Spence.
Third-year linebacker Vince Williams has also logged time over the course of the past two weeks, on Thursday logging 30 snaps as he served largely as the team’s nickel linebacker. He looked, largely, like a player who does not see a lot of time, even if nothing overtly stood out as negative.
In spite of Shazier’s absence, the defense has, all things considered, held up reasonably well, allowing just six points in their first game without him, and then 23 on Thursday night in an overtime game in which the Ravens often had short fields to work with.
But Shazier is expected to be back in practice next week, and hopefully back in the starting lineup a week from tomorrow. With the offense hurting right now, the defense needs every possible playmaker that they have available to them, especially anybody who potentially has the capability of contributing to giving the offense a short field or two per game.