One of the biggest X factors for the Pittsburgh Steelers’ postseason run is going to be, plain and simply, Sean Spence, the main man being tasked with replacing Pro Bowler Ryan Shazier in the starting lineup for the defense at mack linebacker.
Spence, originally signed in the offseason by the Colts, spent the past couple of months on the couch before being signed after Shazier’s injury, and it has taken him time to adjust by physically and mentally to the game and to the defense, even if it is [very similar to] the one he ran in his first four seasons.
I wanted to take a look at Spence’s performance in the season finale to get some indication of how he has developed since coming back, and I did see some positives.
On just the second play of the game, for example, he showed two things that initially attracted the Steelers to him coming out of college in 2012: diagnostic instincts and lateral agility. He was quick to read a run bouncing to the outside on the play and showed good movement to get there, limiting the gain to two.
Later, on the final play of the opening quarter, the Browns were facing a second and 11 backed up to their own one. He was not targeted on the throw, but I wanted to call attention to his coverage working against rookie tight end David Njoku.
Late in the first half, with the Steelers displaying their ‘over’ front (one outside linebacker dropping to the second level), Spence was sent on a blitz, and did well to maneuver around left guard Joel Bitonio, getting a piece of DeShone Kizer on a deep incompletion.
The defense forced Kizer into a third and 17 at the end of the second quarter. Dropping into intermediate depth coverage, Spence made the initial tackle on Duke Johnson to keep the play to a gain of only six to force a punt.
Into the third quarter, with the Browns looking at second and goal from the six, Spence looked to be washed out of the play by the shifting right tackle, but he spun back to the inside of the field and made the tackle after a gain of one.
Deeper into the second half, facing another line shift, the linebacker did well not to overrun the play, meeting Johnson in the hole, and limiting the gain to two yards. The problem? It was third and one. But still a solid effort overall, the circumstances notwithstanding.
There will be no replicating Ryan Shazier, but Spence is rounding into form, and should be able to deliver a level of performance competent enough to prevent the position from being a liability in the postseason. Considering the difference-making contributions over the last two postseason runs from Shazier, that is still a substantial net loss, but it will have to do.