Drafted by the Steelers in the third round in 2012, Spence was seen as a versatile playmaker, one who could create pressure on quarterbacks on the inside as well as track running backs and work in coverage.
However, Spence suffered a horrendous knee injury in the final game of the 2012 preseason, the severity of which put his football future in question. He tore three ligaments in his left knee and also suffered nerve damage. His rehabilitation was long and arduous, but the Steelers never gave up hope he'd be able to contribute in the future.
His 2013 season also ended on injured reserve, thanks to a broken finger that struggled to heal. Still, the Steelers stuck by him even though they drafted a speedy, versatile near-clone to him in Ryan Shazier, taken in the first round of this year's draft.
Now, Spence is the available one.
Spence started in place of Shazier in Saturday's 20-16 loss to the New York Giants. Shazier has been sidelined with a knee injury that he suffered in practice last Sunday. Though head coach Mike Tomlin has called Shazier's injury a "boo boo," it's clearly serious enough to keep him off the practice and playing fields for the time being.
With the starters, Spence shined. It was hard to find a single defensive play in which he wasn't involved or the catalyst behind. Though officially he had two tackles and one assist, his presence was felt beyond the box score. A pressure led to a Giants punt. Another impressive tackle was wiped out by a Stephon Tuitt holding call. On another drive, Spence's play held the Giants to a field goal.
It has long been assumed that Shazier will be starting on the inside alongside Lawrence Timmons when the regular season kicks off next month—a rare honor for a first-year player in Dick LeBeau's defense. Pittsburgh's preliminary depth chart has Shazier as the No. 1 left inside linebacker with Spence the No. 3 behind Vince Williams.
But after Spence's performance Saturday night, it looks like a very real battle could be brewing between himself and Shazier for the starting job. And the longer Shazier is shelved, the better the odds get for Spence.
Spence looked unaffected by his knee on Saturday, and he said when training camp kicked off in July, per Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, that "The way I trained in the offseason, the way it feels, I have total confidence in it."
On Saturday, Spence showed off speed, was able to cut and take angles to both quarterbacks and running backs and looked as fluid and explosive as he was in college playing for the University of Miami. He looks to be a real threat to Shazier's chance to be a rookie starter.
At the very least, he is making a strong argument to be among the starting rotation, especially when LeBeau wants to ramp up his signature interior pressure. But at best, Spence looks capable of beating out Shazier, especially if Shazier's knee "boo boo" lingers or gets re-aggravated.
One thing is certain, however—Spence is not going to be a third-stringer on the Steelers' next depth chart.
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