Arthur Moats, Sean Spence, injured Tyler Matakevich attempt to fill void for Steelers
The Pro Bowl starter remains in a hospital and had spinal surgery. His backup isn't practicing because of a shoulder injury.
A former teammate who spent nine weeks without a job and another veteran converted from his familiar position are sharing repetitions with the first-team defense.
The situation at left inside linebacker might seem dire as the Steelers try to clinch the AFC North on Sunday night against the Baltimore Ravens. Just don't try to sell it that way to the players counted on to replace Ryan Shazier in the aftermath of his spinal cord injury.
“We just have to continue to move this thing along,” said Tyler Matakevich, the top backup at both inside linebacker spots who missed a second consecutive practice Thursday because of a banged-up shoulder. “Ry is our leader. Whenever he's able to come back to us, we'll be ready. Until then, we'll hold it down.”
Shazier is out indefinitely, and Matakevich's injury likely will keep him on the sidelines against the Ravens. For the Steelers, that means the starting spot will filled by recently signed Sean Spence — the team's third-round draft pick in 2012 — or outside linebacker Arthur Moats.
Moats started taking first-team snaps at inside linebacker this week for the first time in his four seasons with the Steelers. His familiarity with the defense gives him an edge over Spence, who left the Steelers after the 2015 season and hasn't played since Oct. 3 when he was released by the Indianapolis Colts.
“The things we do at outside and inside can interchange a little bit,” defensive coordinator Keith Butler said. “(Moats) knows what everybody on the field is doing. If you're a linebacker on this team, you should know what everybody on the field is doing for every defense.
“The reason he has stayed around as long as he has is he does know that.”
Moats, though, has averaged only four defensive snaps per game this season, with the majority of his playing time coming on special teams. Moats said attending positional meetings with the inside linebackers has helped his knowledge.
“It's a big puzzle,” he said. “Once you understand from a coverage standpoint where everyone is going to be, it makes it a lot easier. There are little differences as far as footwork and where your eyes are, but from a coverage standpoint, a lot of this stuff is going to be similar.”
Still, Moats and Spence will be tasked with replacing a player who was selected to his first Pro Bowl last season and was on the periphery of defensive MVP consideration this year.
“Next man up is the standard here,” defensive end Stephon Tuitt said. “Guys that go out there will give the best they can.”
After Shazier was injured, Matakevich had six tackles until his departure in the second half. He acknowledged the Bengals were targeting the middle of the field with Shazier out.
“When 50 goes down … 50 is a special player,” Matakevich said. “You can't take anything away from him. He makes plays people can't make. I felt like once Ry went down and I came in, they definitely were (coming after me.)”
With the Steelers down two players at the position, they turned to one of their own in Spence. He had workouts with the New Orleans Saints, San Francisco 49ers, Philadelphia Eagles and Cleveland Browns, and he anticipated a call from the Steelers after he saw the injuries to Shazier and Matakevich on “Monday Night Football.”
Spence has one season of familiarity in Butler's scheme, but that was two years ago.
“It's pretty much the same thing, the core stuff,” Spence said.
Spence missed his first two seasons because of a serious knee injury, and it's not lost on him that the Steelers selected Shazier with the 15th overall pick in 2014 to play the same position. Had Spence not gotten hurt, the Steelers might have never drafted Shazier.
“He's been lights out ever since,” Spence said. “It was fun watching him grow from when I was here with him and when I left to how he elevated his game. Not just sideline to sideline, but how he was making all of the calls, making all of the checks. It was remarkable.”
Spence thinks he still has much to contribute to the Steelers in the final four regular-season games and postseason.
“I missed two years, and I feel like I never really hit my ceiling yet,” he said. “I feel like there's a ways for me to go, and I'm a steady climber.”