When Pittsburgh Steelers inside linebacker Ryan Shazier went down with a spine injury over a month ago, the team was quick to call an old friend to help alleviate the position. The call was made to former Steelers linebacker Sean Spence and he was thrown into the fire instantly, starting just five days after he was signed. Considering Spence had spent his last two months out of football, the linebacker performed adequately but unfortunately his flaws were ultimately exposed deeply in the Steelers’ 45-42 playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
With Spence anchoring the middle alongside Vince Williams, the Jaguars ran wild, running for 164 yards and three touchdowns. While it is fair to say the entire Steelers’ defense struggled, Spence was taken advantage of by both the Jaguars’ running and passing offense.
Perhaps the biggest struggle for Spence was his inability to fend off blockers and engage with the ball carrier. Spence has a split-second glimpse of Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette approaching his way but the linebacker was unable to fend off his blocker to make the tackle. A weak attempt to grab Fournette with his arm is not enough and the running back is able to turn the handoff into a big gain.
The play above is Fournette’s second touchdown and an absolute breakdown of the Steelers run defense. There are many players to be blamed here and Spence is not excluded. The linebacker takes too long to diagnose and reach the outside to stop Fournette before the running back can get into the end zone. Spence visibly jockeys towards the sideline but by the time he commits to pursuing Fournette, it is already too late to make a play on the running back.
The Jaguars were also able to take advantage of Spence’s inability in coverage. Facing a third and five, the Steelers are matched up man to man in their nickel package. The obvious mismatch on the field? Spence locked up one on one with Jaguars wide receiver Allen Hurns. Quarterback Blake Bortles recognizes this immediately and the Jaguars move the chains easily. Not the smartest coaching decision to have Spence on Hurns but an advantage the Jaguars or any team will take advantage every time.
Another example of Spence in man to man coverage here, the only difference is this pass falls for an incompletion, though Spence is lucky to not be called for defensive holding. Matched up one on one with Fournette, the Jaguars running back looks to separate from Spence but the linebacker holds on for a brief second and disrupts the pass. While Spence was fortunate enough to avoid a penalty here as the officials had been lenient all game, it seems obvious the Jaguars had a plan to exploit the Steelers linebacker.
Spence picked a brutal time to have a poor showing but then again that same statement could hold true for all of the Steelers defense. With his contract expiring and Shazier’s future in doubt, it is impossible to say whether Spence will be back but based off his performance against the Jaguars, it is easy to bet the Steelers will look elsewhere first.