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Steelers stacked at inside linebacker

Chris Adamski
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Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Steelers linebacker Sean Spence takes a break during practice Monday, Aug. 17, 2015, at St. Vincent in Latrobe.

When Larry Foote was lost for the year less than four quarters into the 2013 season, the Steelers had no reliable, proven commodity to replace him at inside linebacker.

Two years later — when and if healthy, at least — they will seemingly have too many players at the position to know what to do with.

The Steelers last year drafted Ryan Shazier in the first round to replace Foote. But the emergence of Sean Spence and Vince Williams has made inside linebacker such a deep position.

Spence and Williams have combined for 22 starts and 1,168 snaps over the past two seasons — their first NFL action — with each taking a year as a de facto starter next to Pro Bowler Lawrence Timmons.

Add to that group a player who has grown into a special teams standout (Terence Garvin) and a player who was well-regarded when drafted by the Steelers 15 months ago (Jordan Zumwalt), and you have a position that quickly has gone from one lacking depth into one that’s considered arguably the deepest on the team.

“Coach (Mike) Tomlin teases me a lot. He says, ‘It’s your first year, we’ve got five guys who were on an NFL team last year and a sixth guy we drafted who we think could be pretty good,’ ” inside linebackers coach Jerry Olsavsky said. “I don’t want to say it makes my job easy … but it makes for a really good atmosphere.”

The Steelers’ job when it comes to replacing an injured inside linebacker has gotten easier than it was a couple of years ago, when forced to turn to Kion Wilson to replace Foote.

Wilson went undrafted in 2010 and had been cut three times by the time the Steelers started him at left inside linebacker for Week 2 in 2013.

He held the job for only two weeks before the Steelers were forced to go with the then-young and still-green Williams. Wilson went from starter to Sunday inactive in less than a month, and he eventually was cut.

Williams wasn’t perfect starting 11 games as a rookie, but he wasn’t lost, either. He started two more games last season. Now he’s the top backup at the “Buck” inside linebacker behind Timmons.

Spence’s story is well-known: a 2012 third-round pick who during his first preseason game suffered a gruesome knee injury that delayed the start of his career until 2014.

When he broke through, opportunity arose in the form of a Shazier injury that made Spence a starter for nine of the final 13 games.

This season, he’s back to being Shazier’s backup at the “Mack” inside linebacker, with Garvin behind him. Zumwalt is No. 3 at Buck.

“A lot of those guys could be starting right now at another camp,” Olsavsky said.

Because of an injury to Timmons that is expected to be minor, Spence is getting a chance to play at his spot with the first team during camp. Williams also has missed time, and Zumwalt left last week’s preseason game because of injury.

It’s enough for Williams to crack, “Well, we were,” when asked about how deep the inside linebackers group is.

Williams added, “We’ve got a lot of experience in our room. That really helps. Jerry is a first-year coach, so we want to help him out. And he helps us out. I think everything’s been going smoothly.”

Because of Timmons’ stature on the team and in the NFL, a long-term injury still would sting. As would another lengthy loss of Shazier, whom the team has high hopes for.

But with salary cap, depth is a luxury. The Steelers are as well-positioned to withstand injury at inside linebacker as they are anywhere.

“We all know what we’re capable of doing,” Spence said. “It’s very unique how all of us are here. We can learn from each other, push each other and make each other better every day.”

Chris Adamski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.

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