Despite improvement, Steelers' Sean Spence rates as NFL's worst linebacker
Sean Spence gradually improved as he settled into his role as the starting left inside linebacker after signing with the Steelers late this past season.
But did he improve enough that the Steelers will bring him back for the 2018 season?
“I want to be back,” Spence said in the aftermath of the Steelers' divisional-round playoff loss last weekend. “We will see. Hopefully things work out.”
Spence was signed, as he put it, “off the couch” Dec. 5, a day after Ryan Shazier suffered the serious spinal injury that his put his football future in doubt. Immediately, Spence was inserted into the starting lineup in Shazier's former spot.
Counting Sunday's postseason loss to Jacksonville, Spence played 219 of the Steelers' 303 defensive snaps over their final five games of the season — all of which he started. Spence totaled 24 tackles (14 primary) and a sack.
“He (struggled) at first,” defensive coordinator Keith Butler said before the regular-season finale, “but he's getting better.”
Spence attributed the slow start to rust. He went more than two months between NFL practices (let alone games); the Indianapolis Colts had released him Oct. 3. Spence did not have a solo tackle during his 2017 Steelers debut Dec. 10 against Baltimore – remarkable for a starting inside linebacker.
But even after late-season improvement, Spence was rated as the worst linebacker in the NFL by Pro Football Focus for this season, a 26.3 rating it classifies as “poor” and 88th among the 88 linebackers it graded (and 8.6 behind No. 87, Darron Lee). Spence had the worst run-defense PFF rating among linebackers and the fifth-worst coverage grade. The Steelers replaced him in obvious passing downs with L.J. Fort.
The Steelers were especially thin at inside linebacker this season — they made a play at signing Dont'a Hightower in the spring, remember? – and that was exacerbated by the loss of both Pro Bowler Shazier and his top backup, Tyler Matakevich, in the same Dec. 4 game in Cincinnati. Matakevich did not play on defense the rest of the season; he was scheduled to have shoulder surgery this week.
The Steelers are expected to prioritize targeting an inside linebacker in the draft and/or free agency. Vince Williams returns as a starter at right inside linebacker, and Matakevich could return as the top backup and special-teams ace. Fort, a core special teams player, is signed for 2018.
That would figure to leave little room for Spence, whose contract expires in March and who will turn 28 in June.