Even after Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Sean Spence passed his first contact test last week, demonstrating that his reconstructed knee and regenerated nerves could withstand the human onslaught that is football, the cynical question of whether or not he could sustain that level of violence remained in the minds of many outside observers.
But the third-year inside linebacker not only trucked through the full slate of six straight padded practices leading into the Tuesday off day, he capped it off by taking some reps with the starting defense with rookie Ryan Shazier off to the sidelines nursing a “little booboo”, as head coach Mike Tomlin described it.
It was a fitting symbol for how much progress he’s shown over the past week to be able to end a brutal week of smacking pads by playing with the first-team defense, which is where he might be playing now had he never suffered that career-threatening injury nearly two years ago.
The final hurdle will come on Saturday, when the Steelers open up their preseason slate against the New York Giants on Saturday in MetLife Stadium, but given how far he’s already come, it’s hard to imagine at this point that he will falter now.
It’s been a long road back for the former third-round pick out of the University of Miami, whose last game action of any sort came in the 2012 preseason finale against the Carolina Panthers on August 30, during which he recorded six tackles.
Even though he’s officially listed as third on the depth chart at the left inside linebacker position, behind Shazier and Vince Williams, of course, that’s not functionally how it works out. Williams is the backup to the right, ‘buck’ linebacker position behind Lawrence Timmons, where Terence Garvin is currently listed.
But when the Steelers trot out their second-team defense on Saturday night, expect to see Spence lined up next to Williams as the inside linebackers of that unit, perhaps with Garvin sprinkled in here and there on passing downs.
And from the sounds of it, we should also expect to see a Sean Spence very similar to the one that we last saw nearly two years ago, a heat-seeking missile of a linebacker who always seems to know where the ball is and how to get there in a hurry.
The Steelers figure to get their first real look at their 2012 third-round pick after two years of waiting, and you can bet that they will make good use of him this year wherever and whenever they can, even with Timmons and Shazier ahead of him.
Despite spending his Monday afternoon running with the likes of Cameron Heyward and Jason Worilds, however, you can count on the majority of the 24-year-old’s time this year to be spent running up and down the field on Danny Smith’s orders. And that alone should be a sight to see after such a long wait.