When you lose a player as important as Ryan Shazier, there is no seamless transitioning to a Plan B. Even several games since the Pittsburgh Steelers’ lone defensive Pro Bowler’s injury, the defense is still working on feeling out the best ways, using the best personnel, to make up for what they are missing in his absence.
At one point even using Arthur Moats at inside linebacker, the defense is slowly refining something of a rotation with Sean Spence, recently signed, as the primary mack linebacker with L.J. Fort being used in dime packages. Recently, even Cameron Sutton has been added to the mix.
But Fort, the third-year linebacker in spite of the fact that he has been in the league since 2012, does appear to have a role, as described above. In fact, he took quite a bit of the defensive snaps at the end of the last game, as an example.
Originally bringing him in during the 2015 preseason, Fort has been a popular player among the coaches. He spent most of that year on the practice squad but was called up in the postseason, and has been on the roster for most of the past two years.
This season has seen his most significant playing time on defense by far, however, being primarily used as a coverage piece in obvious passing situations. This is the trait that his coaches have long talked about, and why he is being used now.
“I’ve always liked L.J., he has good instincts”, his defensive coordinator, Keith Butler, said of him during the week. “I think he’s rounded into the job [of dime linebacker] pretty well. He’s getting a lot of confidence because he’s doing some good things for us. Hopefully, he keeps getting better. You never know what you got until they start playing”.
The Steelers, especially head coach Mike Tomlin, have been open about the fact that they are feeling out how to move on from Shazier, and who to use in what situations, but they appear to have zeroed in on a plan that they feel works, with Fort being a key piece there.
The former undrafted free agent in the regular season finale recorded his first sack since the first game of his career, in the only game that he started in his career, in the Browns’ 2012 season opener. That was the Steelers’ 56th sack of the season, setting a new franchise record for the most recorded over one season.
While he has not recorded a lot of tackles during his playing time, this is largely due to the amount of time he has spent in coverage. He has recorded four pass defenses on the year, including two over the course of the last two games, all in the past five games.