Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Sean Spence has been a topic of discussion since he was drafted, but for the better part of the past two years, it’s gravitated around what ifs, and whether he would ever even be able to play, after tearing up his knee in his rookie preseason.
As we all know, linebackers coach Keith Butler said last year that it would be miraculous if he were able to play this season, let alone last year, but he has recently conceded that it’s getting miraculous, and we’re only seeing more and more of that now that OTAs have gotten underway.
The Steelers.com team of Bob Labriola and Mike Prisuta wrapped up the opening round of OTAs during a segment on the team website recently, and their accounts of Spence’s on-field performance affirm previous reports that he looks fluid out on the field, maybe even as though he were never injured. It reminded Labriola of the way he looked back in 2012:
One of the things that really stood out to me [about him] as a rookie, before he injured his knee in that fourth preseason game against Carolina, was how he was able to find the football, and how sudden he was in showing up there. I really can’t remember back that far how quickly he was there and whether he’s as quick now as he was then, or is he half a step slower; I don’t know how to gauge that just yet.
But I did notice a couple of different times, as you’re watching 11-on-11, and the ball would go to one side of the field or the other…you see a bunch of gold jerseys there, and you look at the numbers to see who was there first, and 51 was there pretty quickly on more than one occasion. So it looks like what Sean Spence had that made him special as a rookie, he hasn’t lost all of that.
Spence, of course, dons the number 51 once worn by a recent Steelers great at inside linebacker, James Farrior. But maybe the most interesting piece of information culled from this segment was something that Prisuta relayed that Spence said in response to the numerous times that he was asked if he has to wait until training camp to really know if he would actually be able to play:
The really intriguing part to me regarding Sean Spence is…he’s been asked “are you really going to have to wait until training camp to know whether you’re back or not” and he said, in his words, “ no, I think I’ll find out right now if I can run and cut and do all the things that I’ll have to do on my knee. I know how to play in pads”.
So, evidently, Spence already knows, or should know soon, whether or not he feels his body is ready and capable of resuming the actual game of football, as opposed to “football in shorts”, as Mike Tomlin would say. And the signs seem to be pointing in the positive direction. As Labriola stated:
When Ryan Shazier learns a little bit more about the defense and it comes down to competing for a spot, Sean Spence might be the guy he’s competing with. We’re talking about Vince Williams as the incumbent starter there, at least for 11 games last year, but if Sean Spence really is back and is feeling like himself, that could be an interesting battle.
Spence does have one advantage on both of his fellow young inside linebackers, and that’s a more intimate understanding of the nuances of the defense. Even if he’s had to learn it from the sidelines, he’s been watching it now heading into his third offseason, and is capable of running it. This idle time over the past two years has certainly not seen Spence sitting idly by:
“I think it slowed the game down for me a lot. I’m picking up things a lot easier now, being able to watch for two years, correcting other people’s mistakes and not making the same mistakes on the field”.
For the first time in quite a while, the conversation about Sean Spence is finally back to just football. Now, we have a chance to look at where he’ll fit into this defense and speculate about what type of role he’ll have. He even has an opportunity, conceivably, to compete for a starting spot.
The Steelers talked about entering this offseason not expecting anything out of Spence, and anything they get out of him is just the cherry on top. That outlook helped lead them to Shazier in the first round, and now we get the cherry as well.