It’s been a frustrating year for inside linebacker Ryan Shazier, who has spent much of his rookie season nursing knee and ankle injuries.
However, Shazier’s absence has paved the way for Sean Spence and Vince Williams to gain immeasurable experience. Spence started four games before Shazier returned in Week 8 against Indianapolis, but Williams got the nod last Sunday against the New York Jets.
Spence and Williams have split time the past two weeks. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has tried to play to their strengths in hopes they can elevate the performance of a defense that has been mostly up and down all season.
For Shazier, he’s trying to salvage something from a disappointing season. If nothing else, he’s had a chance to watch and learn.
“It helps me a lot watching all three (inside linebackers),” Shazier said. “I can use all their styles to learn. With all of us rotating, it’s going to make us better.”
Again, Spence and Williams are likely to split duty when the Steelers face the Tennessee Titans (2-7) at LP Field in Nashville, Tenn., on Monday
“I think we are learning to play together and understanding our roles,” Spence said. “Right now, we’re trying to execute better.”
Admittedly, Williams isn’t exactly sure of his role in the defense. It is, however, much different than it was in 2013.
“It’s directly opposite of what I did last year,” said Williams, who played sparingly until Shazier went down against Baltimore two weeks ago. “Last year, I was coming out on nickel packages and third downs. Now, I’m playing exclusively on nickel packages.
“They ask me to go in, and I go in. That’s pretty much the way it goes. I go in mostly on nickel packages, but the rhyme and reason for that I couldn’t say.”
Williams and Spence have become situational players. Spence plays primarily in the base defense, and Williams is used largely in the nickel, meaning he’s trusted more in pass coverage and blitz packages.
“I don’t know if my role has evolved,” said Spence, who has 31 tackles and three quarterback pressures. “Sometimes, you don’t understand your role until you get the game plan.
“Right now, I’m just focusing on stopping the run. I have improved on my tackling and I’m recognizing plays better.”
So far, both linebackers are convinced that splitting duty hasn’t affected their overall performance. They played reasonably well in a 20-13 road loss to the New York Jets on Sunday, but more is expected against Titans rookie quarterback Zach Mettenberger.
“We have to execute no matter the circumstance,” Spence said. “I think the coaches are trying to get two good players on the field. Vince practices hard, and it’s hard to keep a player like that off the field.”
Mettenberger is the Titans’ third starting quarterback this season. So, Spence and Williams have only limited information on a rookie quarterback slated to make his third start ahead of former No. 1 pick Jake Locker and Charlie Whitehurst.
“(Mettenberger) stands in the pocket, and he doesn’t run away from pressure,” Spence said. “He can make all the throws, and he does a pretty good job of reading coverages. We have to not beat ourselves, especially against a young quarterback.”
Williams isn’t trying to complicate his role. He lines up inside, then goes headhunting.
But Williams and Spence had problems containing Jets quarterback Michael Vick. They allowed the 36-year-old quarterback to scramble for two first downs to set up the Jets’ first touchdown.
“I went through the entire offseason working on nickel formations,” Williams said. “I was already acclimated to it, so I felt like I was trying to improve my overall game. I can still play aggressively and strike people from the nickel formation. It’s part of being a complete linebacker.”
In Mettenberger, the Steelers face an immobile quarterback with a strong, accurate arm. Clearly, he’s a stark contrast to Vick.
“We have to understand what he’s capable of doing,” Williams said. “He’s a strong-arm guy who can make all the throws. Regardless of his background, you have to be aware of what he can do.”
Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected] .