When you look back just to the start of last season and project the starting lineup that the Pittsburgh Steelers can be expected to field when they resume play in September, you’ll see that they’ve undergone quite a bit of change. Certainly more than usual.
With two exceptions—Heath Miller and Le’Veon Bell—the changes to the opening day lineup will be made either due to free agency losses or gains or simply superior play. The two aforementioned players, of course, projected as starters but missed the early portions of last season due to injury.
This series will take a look primarily at the starting positions that will be filled by new faces, replacing the old faces that are now gone—Emmanuel Sanders, Ziggy Hood, LaMarr Woodley, Larry Foote, and Ryan Clark.
Position: Inside Linebacker
2013 Opening Day Starter: Larry Foote
Projected 2014 Starter: TBD [Ryan Shazier, Vince Williams, Sean Spence]
The starter at the buck inside linebacker position will most certainly change in 2014, given that the previous opening day starter, Larry Foote, has gone to pasture in Arizona, where seemingly upwards of 50 percent of all aging former Steelers wind up.
There are three prime candidates to take his place, and only one has playing experience. So we’ll start with him.
Vince Williams, a second-year compensatory draft pick in the sixth round, emerged as a surprise last season when he was forced to play following Foote’s season-ending injury in the opener. He started most of the season at the position, but was heavily substituted in passing situations, as was the case in college.
His strongest case to hang on to his job for a bit longer would be if he can prove to be more consistent in coverage, but given the athleticism of the other two candidates, it’s still likely that he could be substituted in obvious passing situations even if he’s the token starter.
Still, he gradually improved during the season and became a solid contributor—in limited snaps—by year’s end.
Ryan Shazier has only had a few weeks’ worth of time to start soaking in the defense, having been drafted by the Steelers with the 15th overall pick in the draft, but he figures to have a decent shot of being the opening day starter.
Unlike Williams, should Shazier start, it would figure to prompt Lawrence Timmons to move from the mack to the buck. The same could be said of Timmons if Sean Spence should win the job, as both are smaller builds less adept at taking on and shedding blockers.
Spence has missed the past two seasons, primarily with a career-threatening knee injury, but a broken finger helped stifle the life out of the 2013 season when he was unable to practice because of it while trying to come off the PUP list.
Now nearing two years removed from the injury, Spence is seemingly working without limitations for the first time in quite a while. The real test will come when live contact starts. Spence’s main asset would figure to be his knowledge of the defense, which he has been soaking up in the classroom for two seasons now. Outside of Timmons, he’s the most veteran of the team’s inside linebackers in this scheme.