In the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted a very talented linebacker from the University of Miami. Standing at only 5 ft 11 in and weighing roughly 230 lbs, Sean Spence was deemed too small by many teams to be a successful linebacker at the professional level, however that did not stop the Steelers from falling in love with his instincts and abilities on the field.
Judging by his skill-set, and size, Spence would have been better suited to landing with a 4-3 team where he could play as the weak-side linebacker.
As such, landing with a 3-4 team such as the Steelers caused some confusion initially. Multiple different ideas were touted as observers attempted to provide reasoning for the selection. Some of the more outlandish thinkers among us saw Spence as Troy Polamalu's eventual replacement at strong safety. Others thought he would move outside to be James Harrison's eventual replacement, with Jason Worilds moving inside. The more rational section of us pontificated whether Spence would supplant Larry Foote for the starting inside linebacker job or not.
Keith Butler had already quelled any thoughts of Spence starting immediately, when he told him at the combine that rookie linebackers don't start for the Steelers. Even though that somewhat poured water over the rising fire of excitement enveloping Steelers fans immediately after the draft, Spence has done a lot since then to raise expectations once again.
With Stevenson Sylvester struggling with injuries during the off-season, Spence saw a lot of opportunities to claim the backup inside linebacker position.
He appears to have taken those chances.
Playing defense for the Steelers, especially at linebacker, is not an easy thing even if you have all the physical tools. What generally keeps rookies on the sidelines is the complexity of the defense. Or in other words, the mental side of the game. Spence doesn't appear to be struggling with the playbook. In fact, he is picking it up at a phenomenal pace considering James Farrior and Timmons took years to nail down their positions. The complexities and nuances of the Steelers' defensive scheme appear to be seamlessly sliding into Spence's sagacity.
That said, even though he is asking all of the right questions and taking the right notes, he is still at best going to be the primary backup or a situational player this season. When you are a rookie playing for Dick LeBeau, that is not an achievement to take lightly. Even the most gifted of rookies would struggle to crack the Steelers' allocation of snaps between their linebackers.
Spence is somewhat fortunate that his skill-set will afford him plenty of opportunities to be on the field. In today's mismatch haven of professional passing attacks, hybrid linebackers have become very valuable commodities. There is a premium placed on any players who can help teams shut down the new-age receiving tight ends or aid a team's nickel defense without exposing it elsewhere. The intelligence level of the elite quarterbacks in today's NFL, your Tom Bradys, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Mannings and Drew Brees of the world, are too intelligent to not take advantage of any soft spots on defenses.
Soft spots on defenses appear when you sell out to stop one element of the offense. Those elite quarterbacks will have no problem running on every down if that is what will lead them to success. Therefore, teams now more than ever need players who can play both the pass and run effectively. It appears that Sean Spence is one of those types of players.
Spence won't be a three down linebacker, but he could be a star on third down. That is presuming that the Steelers can effectively use him in that role. They would not be the first team to do so. The Philadelphia Eagles set the most recent precedent with their use of Casey Matthews last season.
Much like Spence, Matthews was considered undersized coming out of college. That proved true early in his rookie season before Matthews was reduced to a specialist role. He and Brian Rolle became key components of the team's pass defense as the Eagles finished the season very strong.
Even though the Eagles run a completely different defensive scheme, it would be foolish not to analyze what worked, and what didn't, for the Eagles when handling Matthews this way.
Obviously the Eagles run a 4-3 defense while the Steelers run a 3-4, but there are other less obvious adjustments that the Steelers need to be aware of.
When the Eagles went into their nickel defense last season, they tended to send just four rushers and drop the rest of the defense into coverage. Unlike the Steelers, the Eagles don't look to confuse opposition quarterbacks with exotic blitzes or complicated formations, they use their talent on the defensive line, and ability in coverage, to simply overrun offenses.
On this play, the Eagles shifted Casey Matthews and athletic linebacker Brian Rolle, two staples of their nickel defense by the end of last season, into the slot to cover the Jets' receivers. Matthews is actually covering Dustin Keller, a tight end, and Rolle is covering wide receiver Santonio Holmes.
The Eagles only send four rushers.
While everyone else is in coverage.
The Steelers on the other hand will show very different formations and looks at offenses on third down. While the Eagles do have a few plays with Trent Cole and Jason Babin wandering between the tackles, they have nothing like this formation which the Steelers employ.
Despite covering the tight end, Jared Cook, in the opposite flank, Polamalu drops into coverage while five Steelers rush the passer, despite only one player, Evander Hood, having his hand on the ground. Spence should fit perfectly in these types of scenarios as, unlike Farrior who is limited to covering the back and blitzing(poorly) if he stays, he has the speed to be used like Polamalu. He obviously isn't Polamalu, at least not yet, in terms of impact, but he does have the ability to line up in one spot but have an assignment at a completely different part of the field.
If you want an idea of Spence's speed on the field skip to the 1:38 mark of this video.
Hasselbeck had a chance to get rid of the ball, but looked directly at Polamalu before abandoning his read and looking to scramble before being sacked.
On this occasion Matthews was actually forced into the Eagles base defense as Jamar Chaney was out. Lining up at middle linebacker, Matthews will eventually use his athleticism to make a play on the ball-carrier after a screen pass to Roy Helu.
When the ball is snapped, Matthews backpedals to the point that he is roughly 12 yards away from where the back will catch the football. He quickly recognizes the screen pass however and shows good technique, and quick feet, to square up with the football. Judging by the drops his fellow linebackers take, it appears that Matthews responsibility was in zone coverage opposed to tracking the running-back. While that obviously is an interpretation, if true it makes the play even more impressive.
Matthews accelerates as soon as the ball leaves Rex Grossman's finger tips but there is a blocker in good position to seal the way for Helu. Matthews shapes to run at his inside shoulder before shifting his weight, without stopping, and sprinting past the outside shoulder causing the blocker to fall to the ground. A less athletic linebacker would not have made the play.
There is some space for Helu to try and jink past Matthews, but Matthews pushes him towards the sideline and wraps him up. Matthews never slowed down on the play showing both control and aggression. Most of his teammates at linebacker would not have evaded the initial blocker.
In passing situations, it is always important not to give up the first down to the running back. Greater athleticism, and sure tackling, are major positives for doing that.
In a very similar situation, except that the Ravens have split Ray Rice wide right, Larry Foote shows athleticism and is caught by the offensive lineman running down the field.
Flacco makes no fake and throws the ball instantly to Rice. Foote reads it immediately, but Michael Oher shows more speed than him in the open field and intersects him on his route to the ball. If Foote was even slightly quicker, he would have evaded the tackle and made the play on Rice.
Now that he sees Oher in his way, Foote attempts to sell the inside shoulder to him, but he has beaten him to the perfect spot to close the linebacker away from the play. Instead of hitting Rice for a two yard gain, Rice scampers for eight yards before Evander Hood drags him down.
Foote's athleticism was the difference in third and two, opposed to third and eight. That dramatically changes the situation of the next play and drive as a whole.
Flexibility in Coverage:
Even though they added a new dynamic to their secondary last season with Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown, the Steelers were still limited by their linebackers. Lawrence Timmons is more than capable in coverage, but whether it was Larry Foote or James Farrior, the Steelers didn't have a linebacker capable of manning up to anyone in open space last season. Foote could at least be dropped into zones, but it's always better to have as few limitations as possible. Otherwise you risk becoming predictable.
In Philadelphia, Andy Reid trusted Casey Matthews to track receivers down the field. As you would expect, he wasn't capable of covering elite wide receivers, but he did prove to be a very good option against tight ends and even running backs split wide. In a league where Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski have established a new tight end era, covering the position has never been more important.
The Steelers are fortunate in that they have a very good option to cover tight ends in second year cornerback Cortez Allen. For that reason, and because of his vertically challenged frame, Spence will likely never see time in single coverage against tight ends. Instead he should be expected to see time in the slot covering receivers further down the depth chart.
That will have a knock-on effect on the Steelers defense as a whole. Here the Steelers are in their base defense and Tom Brady split Kevin Faulk wide left to try and spread out the defense, in turning finding a mismatch. With LaMarr Woodley caught between Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker, he found it.
Woodley in space is difficult enough for the Steelers to manage, and instead of moving Foote out alongside him, he is kept between the tackles. If Spence is on the field in this situation, he offers the team a player with the speed to move outside of the tackles when there is no running threat.
Foote is worried about Welker running across him and shifts his weight onto his right foot to try and break the timing of the route. Welker recognizes this and instead pivots so that he is wide open and has beaten Foote with his quickness.
If not for a quick reaction from Troy Polamalu, which forced Brady to throw the ball at his feet, Welker would have found plenty of yardage down the sideline. Foote was only able to make the tackle because Welker had to stop, and fall over, in order to cradle the football.
You can break down the Xs and Os of football all day, but what is overlooked in that aspect of football is that each X and each O are not equal to each other. Obviously different players have different talents, so that is one difference, but just as significant is the player's stamina or what the offense expects from individual players.
On this play against the Dallas Cowboys, the Eagles decided to get more aggressive against backup quarterback Stephen McGee. Even though McGee is a backup, he would expect Matthews to drop back in coverage because that is what he predominantly does in this situation.
Instead, Matthews shoots the A gap and surprises the offensive line. That element of surprise allows Matthews to attack a wide A-Gap. While Dick LeBeau doesn't blitz as often as he likes to make teams think he does, Spence will likely play a more expansive role and not be pigeon-holed by offenses expecting him to do certain things.
What is important to note about this play is Matthews' enthusiasm. He has just come on the field after a six plays into a drive which started just after the first quarter. Matthews was last on the field with four minutes to play in the first quarter. He is completely fresh and uses his energy to brush past Kyle Kosier. If he had even been the slightest bit late, Kosier would have picked him up. When a player with the speed of Matthews, and Spence, isn't being routinely beaten, he can be very aggressive during the limited snaps he sees.
Matthews' energy allows him to shrug off Kosier's attempts to push him to the ground. That alone is a result of his intensity on the play, chasing McGee to the sidelines is something a tired player likely would not have done.
A lack of intensity was an issue with the Steelers' third down pass rush last season. Don't get me wrong, there is nothing about James Harrison lacking intensity, but when James Farrior was on the field, he was often forced to blitz because of his lack of speed in coverage. Farrior was never a great blitzer, especially not at that late stage in his career and with a physically declining body, his attempts often looked tired and moot.
Because the Steelers have so many quality rushers, Spence's improvement over Farrior in that area is not as significant, but it does help to have even greater flexibility in every facet of the game.
Cian Fahey writes for the Guardian, Irishcentral, FFBLife and has contributed to Steelersdepot in the past. You can follow him on twitter @Cianaf