Steelers Linebacker Battle Between Shazier, Spence Becoming Heated in Preseason

Curt Popejoy@@nfldraftboardContributor IAugust 12, 2014

Jun 17, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier (50) participates in drills during minicamp at the UPMC Sports Performance Complex. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Is there a linebacker controversy brewing with the Pittsburgh Steelers? Perhaps not, but things have quickly become very interesting among the inside linebacker depth chart.

The Steelers made inside linebacker an area of emphasis in the 2014 NFL draft, spending their first-round pick on Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier. Shazier is making the conversion from a 4-3 outside linebacker to a 3-4 inside linebacker.

The goal is to utilize his speed and explosion in a multitude of ways, including coverage and as a pass-rusher. In 2013, this inside linebacker spot became something of a liability, which forced the defense into sub-packages far too often. Shazier’s ability to drop into coverage should eliminate some of this, and by extension, improve the run defense.

However, after a fast start to training camp, Shazier has hit a little speed bump in his fast track to stardom. A knee injury called a “boo boo” by head coach Mike Tomlin at the press conference I watched sidelined him for several practices. It also kept Shazier out of the team’s first preseason game against the New York Giants.

What this allowed was the triumphant return of inside linebacker Sean Spence. Spence has missed the entirety of his first two seasons in the league recovering from a gruesome leg injury.

Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

When Spence was drafted back in 2012, he was supposed to be what Shazier is, that dynamic player who can cover tons of field and give the defense that athletic spark. Thus far in 2014, Spence has flashed everything the team expected of him when he was a heralded rookie.

Spence started in place of Shazier in the Steelers’ first preseason game and was impressive. Spence played for about a half and had five total tackles. More than the numbers was how Spence looked. He was fast and agile, making cuts with no hesitation. It was hard to watch him going full speed and think he’s lost anything in the physical part of his game.

As ESPN 970’s David Todd pointed out:  

Love it. Sean Spence makes his presence felt. Pressure on Eli. He's on the 53. #Steelers

— David Todd (@DavidMTodd) August 9, 2014 

Interestingly, if you look at Spence and Shazier in college, they aren’t so dissimilar. Spence accumulated 317 tackles, 46 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks in 47 games spread out over four seasons.

Shazier accumulated the same 317 total tackles, along with 45.5 tackles for loss and 15.0 sacks in 38 games over three seasons.

Comparing Shazier and Spence
College Football Reference

Could Pittsburgh find themselves in a state of buyer’s remorse over Shazier? All signs point to Spence back to full speed, which one could argue makes the Shazier pick less than a good value.

Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

The situation is made more complicated by the fact that as we near the midpoint of the preseason, the play of the defensive secondary—and the cornerbacks in particular—has been underwhelming to say the least.

The Steelers staff had to know Spence was on the right track. Could they have opted instead for a cornerback in the first round? Or perhaps additional help on an offensive line that is still trying to find its way? It is hard to speculate, but it is interesting to think about if this defense could be even more athletic if their only rookie defensive back wasn’t a fifth-round pick.

It seems as if Shazier is back healthy and on track to play Saturday when the Steelers take on the Buffalo Bills. According to ESPN’s Scott Brown, that’s where Shazier’s head is at going into the week. 

Ryan Shazier said he expects to play Saturday night. He's not sure when he will practice this week.

— Scott Brown (@ScottBrown_ESPN) August 11, 2014

How long can Spence play the way he does before there is some trepidation about putting him on the bench in the regular season? I recognize that having both of these young men on the roster is a good problem to have. But, it is still a problem.

Getting the 11 best players on the field should be the goal. Spence’s return has been nothing short of miraculous, and I for one will be rooting for him to get on the field as much as possible this season.