How did Sean Spence look in replacing Ryan Shazier?
Everybody knew replacing Ryan Shazier on the fly was going to be tough. Of any player on the defense, he was the most irreplaceable. With that in mind, it is no surprise that it took four players, with a shuffling of Sean Spence, Arthur Moats, L.J. Fort and William Gay to fill the gap. Gay came in for dime situations, as he always does, and Vince Williams slid into the Shazier role. Fort came on late in the game when the Ravens were trailing and had to pass. Then, the Steelers shuffled Moats and Spence on early downs series for series looking for either to give a reason to stick with them. Neither really did and the team gave up 38 points and continued to rotate the two into the fourth quarter.
However, with about 12 minutes left in the game, the unit forced its first three and out with Spence on the field. They decided that was hot enough of a hand to roll with it for the rest of the game, and the next two series’ saw Spence over Moats. Did Spence do enough to secure a full time starting spot against New England?
How you perceive the first start for Spence has everything to do with expectations. If you were expecting the defense not to skip a beat without Shazier, those expectations were way off base. If you look at Sean Spence through the vacuum of a player who has not even been with a football organization since September, it was not awful.
However, there was so much rust being shaken off of Spence that you could see it falling off of him as he ran. Spence had moments but looked rough in others.
Below is an ugly attempt at defending the run. He read the play well and did a good job flowing with the ball carrier. However, for some reason, he is preoccupied with the pulling blocker. Being a player whose job typically is to take on blocks and free things up for others, he apparently had that mindset and was looking to take the blocker out of the play. However, the blocker went outside, for cornerback Cameron Sutton, and Alex Collins read Spence and burnt him for a big gain.
Again, the rust shows as Spence looks lost on another long run. This time Spence is watching the back. However, as a small hole appears between the right guard and the center, Spence sees Collins glance to it. It causes Spence to stop flowing towards the outside, and take a step back to where he was in a desperate effort to fill that small leak. Unfortunately, he was being set up by Collins, who is a very savvy back. Spence recovers but just misses Collins by a step. If only he had not taken that one step back.
Lastly, it is worth prefacing that the Ravens running game is no joke. You can see Collins manipulating Spence, and manipulation is the bread and butter of the rushing attack. They pull a lot and put offensive linemen in positions they typically are not in. It is complicated stuff for anyone, let alone a player who is just trying to get acclimated to being thrown into the speed of the NFL.
Watch the left tackle below. He completely blows off Cameron Heyward and immediately is looking to get into the second level. Spence, whose head is likely spinning, is not even thinking about the left tackle. He is watching the running back. When he sees the toss, he breaks right. However, the left tackle is there to completely seal him off and take him out of the play.
Coverage had some downs for sure but did have a few more ups. Below, he gives up a touchdown to a fullback. While you should not be expecting a Shazier-like effort out of Spence, these plays hurt to watch because you know how easily Shazier would have made it.
In fact, it is not like Spence did anything wrong here. He just isn’t Ryan Shazier. Spence read the play, he broke on the ball, and he stuck his head in there for a tackle. Unfortunately, he is nowhere near the athlete that Shazier is, and does not have the same intuitive nature to have already been shuffling that way when the play action run was directed that way.
Now, finally, to a bright spot. This play was drawn up specifically to test Sean Spence. Spence likely would have been responsible for Danny Woodhead, lined up to the right of the quarterback. However, the Ravens threw a wrench in the plan and put Michael Campanaro in motion from left to right. In a split second, Spence has to understand this is his responsibility. The Ravens threw in the play action and sent Woodhead out on a route to get Spence to fall for any of these red herrings. Spence stayed true to his assignment, he stuck with the receiver, and Flacco threw the ball away.
Below, Spence again stays true to his coverage. The Ravens run play action. While Spence stepped up a bit, he recognized quickly, recovered, and took away anything underneath to the tight end. This forced Flacco to step away, move out of the pocket and completely look the other way.
It would be tough to say that Spence earned a full-time starting position for the Steelers moving forward without Shazier. However, at the same time. it is tough to say that the team should have expected more out of him. This is a really tough position to be placed in.
The team will likely rotate Moats and Spence again and search for any reason to name one of them the hot hand moving forward. The expectation should be that Spence can take this start, learn from it, and be in better position to take over that job next week.
Unfortunately, the Patriots, the masters of confusion will have a crack at confusing Spence as he still continues to process the speed of decision making that comes in the NFL. It will be a tall task and one that is tough to currently get optimistic about.