The human implications of the spinal injury suffered by Pittsburgh Steelers inside linebacker Ryan Shazier are quite daunting. Over the course of the past couple of days, I have tried to talk about it—how it is affecting the locker room, and even how it is affecting myself as an observer.
But there is also football to be played. Tonight, in fact. And there is a spot open in the defense where Shazier played. And where Tyler Matakevich played, who is missing this game after initially replacing the Pro Bowler due to an injury of his own.
While L.J. Fort was called upon to replace Matakevich for the remainder of that contest, he doesn’t appear to be an option tonight, where we may be seeing a number of methods of replacing an athlete who is literally irreplaceable with his unique speed, athleticism, and diagnostic acumen.
It is possible that the primary piece of the puzzle in replacing Shazier will be veteran Arthur Moats, who has spent his years in Pittsburgh lining up outside, but who has also practiced and logged time in a preseason game inside in emergency situations.
Moats joked that he has “wind-aided” 4.3 speed like Shazier, but I think even the most optimistic viewer is knowledgeable enough to anticipate a dropoff in performance from one to the other. Even if Moats starts, which as of this writing has not ben formally announced, however, the Steelers do have a backup plan—a literal one.
During the week, the front office went out and signed former Steelers inside linebacker Sean Spence, who has actually logged as many years in the team’s system as Shazier, having been drafted two years prior to him, though he missed those years due to injury.
Having spent those two years overcoming a career-threatening knee injury, however, Spence returned to the field successfully and played two more seasons with the team, during Shazier’s first two seasons. In fact, he started 13 games for Shazier, sometimes rotating with Vince Williams, and recorded 90 tackles with two sacks in the process.
After spending some time with the Titans and Colts in the past two seasons, tonight marks his first back in the black and gold since that 2015 season, though it remains to be seen in what capacity that will be. That goes not just for tonight, but beyond.
When Matakevich returns—assuming his injury is not overly serious—will he automatically resume his spot as the next man up? Given the long-term nature of Shazier’s injury, it would not be surprising if they alter their plans.
I wouldn’t think that Moats converting to inside linebacker is a full-time solution for the remainder of this season. Spence, however, could be. After all, he has literally started games filling in for Shazier in the past. I don’t know why he didn’t work out with the Colts this year—he did miss time with injuries—he was a player on my radar for a return back in the spring already.