When a team loses a player like Ryan Shazier, it goes without saying that there is nothing that can be done on the fly to fill that void. You cannot replicate the sort of talent and the skill set that Shazier brought to the table. All you can do is merely put somebody on the field to take his snaps and hope for the best.
As we head closer to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ first of three upcoming postseason games—yes, you read that correctly—and further removed from Shazier’s injury, it would appear that we are beginning to see ‘the plan’ coalesce.
Of course, the bulk of the plan has been to bring in Sean Spence and start him. it makes sense, naturally, as he was a 2012 third-round pick of the team, and in fact, despite spending his first two seasons injured, he started a number of games in Shazier’s spot during the 2014 and 2015 seasons. So he has done this before.
But on Sunday, especially, it wasn’t all on Spence’s shoulders. The Steelers gave depth linebacker L.J. Fort a long look at the position, ultimately logging 20 defensive snaps, or about a third of the playing time, to Spence’s 43.
This is a relatively, though not dramatically, substantial uptick from previous games. In the first full game after Shazier’s injury, in fact, Fort only saw eight snaps. the Steelers were at the time experimenting with Arthur Moats rotating in that position.
Over the next two games, he was playing roughly 25 percent, shave a snap or two, of the defensive snaps, seeing 15 and 13 snaps, respectively, in Week 15 and Week 16. Spence accounted for the rest of the snaps in both of those games.
In the game in which Shazier was injured, Tyler Matakevich was the first one called upon, logging 41 snaps before he had to bow out with a shoulder injury of his own. Fort played the final 17 snaps before taking a back seat the following week.
But he has incrementally begun to earn more and more playing time, ticking upward, with his snaps largely coming in situations in which the defense expects a pass—third down, usually third-and-long, and at the ends of halves.
He has been on the field for 73 snaps, officially, over the course of the past five games. Of those snaps, 51 of been in coverage, while another 10 have come on the pass rush. Eight of those were on Sunday, and it produced his first sack of the season—and by the way, the second of his career, the first being the first game of his career, while he was with the Browns.