Another preseason game, another major injury blow to the Pittsburgh Steelers. This time, the injury was suffered by rookie inside linebacker Sean Spence, the team's third-round pick. He suffered a severe left knee injury in the third quarter of Thursday's preseason game against the Carolina Panthers and was immediately sent to the hospital.
Preliminary reports, according to Pro Football Focus, are that Spence suffered a torn ACL, LCL and a dislocated kneecap, which, if true, means his season is over.
It also means the Steelers have little time to figure out their situation at inside linebacker.
Spence's injury potentially causes a shakeup of the Steelers' roster plans, with it coming less than 24 hours before the final deadline for teams to reduce their rosters to the league-maximum 53 men.
Throughout the preseason, the Steelers have been short-handed at linebacker. Starting outside backer James Harrison has been off the field after a sore knee resulted in surgery and his backup, Jason Worilds, was sidelined after a surgery of his own, on his wrist.
Inside backer Stevenson Sylvester tore his MCL, which means he'll be out to start the season, which necessitated Brandon Johnson, an outside linebacker, to move inside, leaving a gap at outside depth.
So, to recap, the only healthy linebackers on the Steelers' roster at this moment, prior to roster cuts, are LaMarr Woodley, Chris Carter, the aforementioned Johnson, Larry Foote, Lawrence Timmons, Adrian Robinson, Brandon Hicks and Marshall McFadden.
Immediately, it appears that McFadden and Robinson would be the two most likely to benefit from Spence's injury. It could also mean the Steelers will have another roster spot open for a player at another position (for example, quarterback Charlie Batch) if Spence's year ends on injured reserve.
But the Steelers clearly need to add some depth at linebacker, so it's more probable that they have to release more players than first intended in order to grab a few backers off of waivers once roster cuts are finalized around the league.
Through all four preseason games, McFadden has 15 tackles, with a tackle for loss in each game. Rookie Robinson has a total of three tackles (one for a loss), a defensed pass and a quarterback hit.
Considering the health and depth issues at linebacker, the Steelers could ostensibly keep both players on their 53-man roster.
No team emerges from the preseason without injuries, but the bug has certainly bitten the Steelers harder than others in the past few weeks. Sorting their linebacking corps is but one situation they have to address, but it is the most pressing, and with the roster deadline rapidly approaching, Spence's injury makes hard decisions that much more difficult.
For Pittsburgh, linebacker is a signature position. It'll need to build some reliable depth—and quickly—if it is to have enough insurance for its starters come the start of the regular season.
There's never a good time for an injury, but Spence's coming in the fourth week of the preseason was more than mildly inconvenient.