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For Sean Spence, The Question Shifts From If To How He Can Perform


Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert and head coach Mike Tomlin held their pre-draft press conference yesterday, which stretched out over about half an hour, and there was plenty of information to parse in that time span.

The headline for most, I’m certain, would be Tomlin’s declaration that inside linebacker Sean Spence is “healthy and working”.

While reports leading up to the offseason workouts have alluded to this, it is a significant development to hear it phrased this way following the beginning of football activities.

Especially with the way Tomlin followed that statement, saying, “we can’t wait to watch him take the next step in this process, obviously, which is to play football”. In other words, the only obstacle between Spence and being able to play is simply finding out if he can play, by actually playing.

That’s not to diminish how profound a step that is, of course: to go from merely performing football activities to playing football. Still, the assumption seems to be that he will be able to play. The question, then, is how he will play.

Can he be an impact player? Tomlin: “I think that’s to be determined with how he performs and plays, but he’s been given a clean bill of health and we’ll go from there”.

How close can he be from where he left off in August 2012 from a physical standpoint? Tomlin: “I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t think you can know the answer to that for anybody that sustains a knee injury until they move on and play football”.

These are the questions remaining that need answers. Spence is clearly behind from a physical standpoint, having been out of the game for essentially two years now. But that doesn’t mean that he’s fallen behind from a mental standpoint, which could help give him a critical edge in his return:

“I don’t think that we’re starting from scratch. These haven’t been empty days for him since he’s been here, with the rehabilitation process and what he’s been able to do in terms of learning our system of football. I’m not going to assume that he’s starting from ground zero”.

So now that we have more reason to anticipate the return of the Steelers’ 2012 third-round pick, what are the realistic projections for his 2014 season?

To be frank, it would be a victory if he even becomes a notable special teams contributor, given where he’s been and how much it’s taken him to get to where he is now.

But with an uncertain future at inside linebacker, if Spence is able to play, there is an instant role for him. The current incumbent at the buck, second-year player Vince Williams, has a reputation for being a two-down linebacker. The Steelers regularly took him off the field last season on obvious passing downs.

Late in the season, they began replacing him with Terence Garvin, at the time an undrafted rookie. Spence could hypothetically fill that role with ease, assuming he can do it physically, and as a bonus, he could certainly stand up to the run better than Garvin.

Taking over a starting spot, whether in training camp or somewhere during the season, should not be out of the question, either. While Williams handled himself well, there is a reason that they drafted Spence in the third round in 2012, which was the highest that they’d drafted an inside linebacker other than Lawrence Timmons since they drafted Kendrell Bell in 2001.

Spence possesses many of the strengths that Williams does, and less of the weaknesses. While it’s not wise to get ahead of ourselves, the mind can’t help but be tempted by the possibilities. And that’s what Spence represents right now for the team: potential.

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About Matthew Marczi

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.
  • blackandgoldBullion

    Again, I would be inclined to rotate these guys in and let them be situational guys. Vince Williams for 2 downs perhaps, then Garvin in obvious passing downs unless they have improved immensely where they were weak. Spence is the wildcard. Where can he help? Can he play a small role? Will he eventually be THE answer? I don;t know, but I would give them a chance and draft another later round guy to throw in the mix. No need to try to guess with a 1st round potential stud or dud this year.

  • scott2443

    if hes fully healthy and ready to go this would be a replay of a 3rd round pick with this draft so it be a extra pick in 3rd round ….with a added bonus he already has experience and must by now know the steeler play book inside out …the only question is will he be where he was when he was drafted now from that knee injury…so will this effect the draft picks this year in later rounds where steelers will skip a inside linebacker pick…if thats the case it be another extra pick for steelers in later rounds ..so does this make this a 2 pick swing in this draft in favor of the steelers

  • Brian Tollini

    If he ends up being depth and a special teams contributor that would be excellent. Anything more than this is gravy. Steelers Nation is rooting for Sean.

  • steeltown

    Rooting for ya Spence! If he can show that he’s capable physically he could be another piece to the puzzle.

  • Eric MacLaurin

    Between these comments and those late last year it sounds like he is fully recovered and that the need to see him play football is code for his ability to remain healthy instead of regain speed or strength.

    I think he is a 3 down starter next to timmons if he can stay healthy through spring training and we don’t draft Shazier.

  • srdan

    “but he’s been given a clean bill of health”…nuff said

    People that are determined in life, more often than not prosper. I bet heinz field gives him a loud cheer on his first tackle next year. I will have chills!

  • srdan

    Good analogy. 10 years ago the puzzle had 11-14 pieces on defense. In todays nfl, its more like 22. Situational football keeps salaries lower and lets players do what they excel in.

  • Reg Sayhitodabadguy Hunt

    I also think this is going to be a huge motivator for the d just having him in the game is gonna uplift teams moral and have them play even harder with more passion

  • cencalsteeler

    I agree. Let’s not forget about the return of Pouncey, too. Last year when he went down, the air went out of the whole team. Let’s hope the addition of Pouncey and Spence gets us back to playing with passion as you stated.

  • James Kling

    Can anyone clarify something? I thought the issue with Spence was less structural damage to the knee and ligaments than it was a nerve issue. Does the clean bill of health mean there has been a recovery of the nerve damage? Or is the nerve damage something he can just (try to) play through?

  • Bradley Campbell

    Man am i excited about him playing-Go watch those U of M highlights- if we get that guy back- I need to slow down a little but wow!

  • wilsonmjw

    Peripheral nerves (not spinal cord or brain) can heal and recover and depending on the level of dame it can take years.

    So it is possible that the neurological issues are gone or are at least to a point where it won’t be obvious.

  • mokhkw

    As encouraging as this news is, I wouldn’t read too much into this until he gets to camp & starts with the contact drills; how he copes & recovers with that will be the real story. Nerve swelling is a b**** to deal with.

    Even before the injury I didn’t view Spence as a starter, he looked to me best suited as a Nickel & Sub package player. Maybe the 2 years away from playing & gaining bulk has been a blessing in disguise. Then again, maybe he’s lost some speed & quick-twitch due to the injury.

    One things for sure, we’ll all be cheering for him to succeed and watching him closely during camp & pre-season.

  • Darryl Battle

    Being a diehard Hurricane fan growing up in S. Fla., I saw Spence start as a true freshman at OLB and MLB weighing 190lbs. He was the most talented player on the defense and constantly lead the team in tackles. A great game to view of him is the 2012 game against Ga. Tech. Since they run the option you have to be stout against the run against them, which was never an issue with him. He was also great in pass coverage. So you have the entire package with him. Like Mike Tomlin said, once he gets on the field, we will know. But for myself, seeing how he over came the odds as a 190lb true freshman, I have no doubt in what he can accomplish once he gets out there.

  • Big White

    hope the steelers give him every chance. I usually despise the scum of Miami but to come back from his injury is to persevere, and he has done it. congrats spence, you’ve earned the opportunity.

  • Steve

    I just remember seeing Hardy Nickerson 2.0 in him when looking over the draft class in 2012. I pray that his drive and healed body allow him to live up to that type of expectation.

  • Big White

    time to tack the 53 man roster up to 57ish. I want fullbacks!!!

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