I talked about this a bit earlier today, but perhaps the biggest thing that I would like to see during the season finale against the Cleveland Browns would be a strong game from inside linebacker Sean Spence, who has become the new mack for the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense in the wake of Ryan Shazier’s injury.
Spence, a 2012 third-round draft pick of the team, spent his first two seasons primarily on injured reserve, but returned to the field in 2014, and the bulk of his playing time in the next two seasons came playing in Shazier’s role as the latter dealt with a variety of injuries.
Following those two seasons, he sought other opportunities in free agency, first signing with Dick LeBeau’s Tennessee Titans. This past season, he has struggled to find stable employment. He had been on the proverbial couch essentially for months when the Steelers came calling.
Since taking over the starting job, Spence has recorded 13 tackles and a sack over the course of the past three games. He recorded eight tackles in Monday’s win over the Texans, and four against the Patriots, with just one in his first game against the Ravens.
Defensive coordinator Keith Butler conceded that his new mack linebacker struggled when he was first brought in, but he added, “he’s getting better”. Specifically, he said that Spence “struggled physically”, adding, “that is the thing that is going to happen to you when you come back and you’ve been out that long”.
Spence would be the first to admit that he struggled early on, but he knows exactly why: he was rusty.
“I hadn’t played”, he said when asked to explain his early struggles in his return to Pittsburgh. “I knew the system well, but actually having to tackle someone for the first time on a Sunday night? It was pretty tough”.
“Not having shoulder pads and a helmet on for two months”, he added, “and then to put it on for the first time on a Sunday and in a huge rivalry game like that? It’s pretty tough. But now I feel better. It showed me what I need to work on”.
Spence was obviously not on the roster when the season began. They entered the regular season with second-year Tyler Matakevich as the top backup at both positions, but the circumstances changed with a season-ending injury arose.
It didn’t help that he also suffered an injury that kept him out the next week, but the team is now set with Spence heading into the postseason as their starter, and with L.J. Fort taking a couple of snaps in obvious passing situations. I was an advocate of re-signing Spence in the offseason, but these are certainly not the circumstances in which I envisioned the reunion.