The Pittsburgh Steelers know they have a big question mark right now at the inside linebacker position, where just a short time ago they thought they might have an exclamation point. Because that is what Ryan Shazier was on the verge of becoming, earning Pro Bowl honors in his third and fourth seasons.
With the very real possibility that a spinal injury has ended his playing career—at the very least, the Steelers must enter this offseason working under that assumption—attention must be paid to who will start at inside linebacker for the team in 2018.
And at least one linebacker on the roster is hoping to be that answer. While he may have been in the league since 2012, former undrafted free agent L.J. Fort has not been a great contributor over the years, having been a part of many different organizations, and usually on the practice squad.
In fact, the only start he has ever made in his career was in the first game of his career, in the 2012 season opener for the Cleveland Browns, and that only came about because the team had injuries at the position. Yet he recorded the only interception of his career in that game and his first sack, the second only coming in the second half against the Browns in the Steelers’ 2017 season finale, which set the team record for sacks in a single season at 56.
After Shazier’s injury, Fort was given some playing time, often being used in obvious passing situations, either on third and longs or in hurry-up situations toward the end of halves. He ended up logging a decent amount of time over the course of the team’s finale five games, at least relative to what he otherwise would have gotten—which is none. With his sights set on 2018, however, he is hopeful that he will be able to compete for a starting spot.
Not that this is different for any player, but when asked, he told Chris Adamski that it is his goal to earn a role in the defense. “It’s cool now being so comfortable with the playbook”, he added. “We will see what’s going on moving forward”.
Fort has been a part of the Steelers’ organization for the better part of three seasons now, which includes 29 games on the 53-man roster over the past two seasons. He was mostly on the practice squad in 2015, but was called up at the end of the regular season and did play on special teams in the postseason that year.
He has twice been released during the season, once in each of the past two years, only later to be re-signed, the first time because of an injury, though the swapping of himself and Steven Johnson this past year didn’t seem to have much rhyme or reason. Now he is looking to have the biggest role that he has ever had in his career at the age of 28.