Steelers Sean Spence: The ‘S’ Stands For Safety

One of Spence's greatest strengths is his speed and ability to chase down ball carriers. Credit: Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

Nice alliteration in that title, right?  3rd Round Draft pick, Sean Spence, was drafted by the Steelers with the intent of having him eventually fill the void at inside linebacker with the departure of James Farrior.  Deemed a bit undersized and inexperienced at this position, many have given the Steelers a lower grade for picking a guy like Spence.  However, I feel that there could be some sort of ‘super project’ taking place on the South Side being conducted by Mike Tomlin and Dick LeBeau involving newly drafted Sean Spence.

It’s no secret that offensive schemes in the NFL have changed from the grind’em out on the ground run game to a speed kills pass happy one.  Seemed like just about anytime you looked at the Steelers defense you saw them in some sort of nickel or dime package to cover 3-4 wideouts.  Throw an athletic tight end into the mix and that spells trouble for any defense that relies heavily on their linebackers for coverage over the middle of the field.  Farrior, Foote and Timmons were all guilty of getting burned numerous times in the open field.  The Steelers were desperate to find a guy who had the speed and pursuit to cover the middle.  I say ‘were’ because the Steelers found that type of player in Spence.  But I think the Steelers are at a crossroads already with Spence as to what kind of player they want him to be.

This is where the ‘super project’ comes in.  The Steelers have a choice – and it will come out early in camp – whether to have Spence try and bulk up (without slowing him down too much) to play the inside linebacker position OR they will have Spence slim down by just a few pounds, gain more muscle mass, and move him into the safety position.  Hold on now before you start cursing my name out.  I’m not saying that Spence is going to replace Polamalu.  What I am saying is that Spence may very well replace Polamalu in the next few years.  Still think I’m insane… hear me out.

Polamalu is slated to stay with the Steelers through 2014.  That will make him 34 when his next contract comes up, and will probably put him into retirement.  He may even end earlier depending on how his noggin’ holds up over the next few seasons.  Anyone familiar with Dick LeBeau knows that it takes a couple of seasons to truly learn and master his defensive schemes.  Seems like that will be just enough time for Spence to move into that position.  Ok, so the ‘timeline’ would work out.  But, can Spence actually play strong safety?

Well let’s look at the type of player Polamalu is:

5’10″ 207 lbs.

Ran a 4.5 in his early years, and is still pretty speedy now.

Is amazing at pursuing the ball carrier – either in run defense or passing defense

 Great instinct at the line of scrimmage when blitzing – can read blocking coverages and find the gap quickly

Now let’s look at Spence:

5’11″ 230 lbs.

Ran a 4.6 in the combine.  One of the fastest linebackers in the class.

Known for his great speed and pursuit of the ball carrier

From NFL.com: He can quickly diagnose a play and use his explosive hips to meet running backs and deliver the blow. He has fluid hips in coverage and uses his arm strength to shed blockers when he gets engulfed by bigger players. He is an experienced starter at a high level, and this should allow him to play fast and instinctually from early on at the next level. He has natural athletic ability to fit in a 4-3 scheme where he is playing freely and flowing to the ball. He is an active player and almost always involved on run plays.

Hmmm.... this could be on to something.

I don’t know about you, but if you read Spence’s profile, he sure as hell sounds like Troy Polamalu.  Whether or not all of that can translate into being a beast in the backfield like Polamalu can only be found if and when Spence is playing in that position.  I certainly like the idea of it, and feel that this is far from a ‘reach.’  If Sylvester, Foote, Timmons, and Worilds all have strong camps and starts to the season, where does that leave Spence?  Sure, he will be on special teams for most of the season, but what if he started to take over the back up role over Will Allen and Cromartie-Smith for Polamalu?  He could become some sort of super-hybrid defensive player – Strong Safety/Linebacker…. a Strong Lafety… a Strong Safebacker…..

There’s a large part of me that senses that the coaching staff know this as well and might even be willing to entertain that idea.  Guess we’ll only find out once camp starts and the season rolls along.

What do the rest of you think?  Am I outta my gourd?

 

 

 

Topics: Inside Linebacker, Jason Worilds, Larry Foote, Lawrence Timmons, Sean Spence, Steelers, Stevenson Sylvester, Strong Safety, Troy Polamalu, Will Allen

Want more from Nice Pick, Cowher?  
Subscribe to FanSided Daily for your morning fix. Enter your email and stay in the know.
  • Anthony Grescavage

    I think you’re on the right track with your thinking, but I don’t necessarily think that automatically puts him as a safety.  With him as a safety, you still have the issue of a bigger middle linebacker trying to cover a tight end.  Now, what’s the point of a big inside linebacker?  To stuff the run.  In a pass happy league, that is not nearly as important.
     
    I think perhaps what they Steelers are thinking is to “shrink” the ILB position to better align it with the modern passing game.  Corners and even safeties are typically much smaller than tight ends and have trouble bringing them down.  Linebackers have quite a bit of difficulty covering them.  What you need is someone in between.  Someone who most think is too small to be an ILB, too big to be a safety…sounds like we got our guy.
     
    Of course, it is most certainly a possibility we see him at safety.  A “small” linebacker who moves in to play safety?  I vaguely recall a guy who did that a few years back and became one of the best in the league.  I hear he’s coaching DBs somewhere.  No matter what, I don’t think the Steelers got the “wrong” guy.  I think they knew exactly what they were doing.
     
    Many teams will pick a system, try to find players that fit, and jam everything in there no matter how mismatched it is.  The Steelers do not work that way.  They draft talent, then adjust their schemes to take advantage of that talent.  If you can’t see where Spence “fits” in the defense, it’s because you’re trying to plug him into last year’s defense.  This isn’t last year’s defense.  The Steelers needed an answer for the Gronkowskis if the league.  I think his name is Sean Spence.

  • LOTUSMAN1

    Great analysis of Sean Spence! BOTH his “Strengths” & “Weaknesses”… If he can “Slim Down” say 15ibs., his Speed will increase… Combine that with his Inate Ability to Analyze a Play, Sift through Blockers, and EXPLOSIVE IMPACT on The Ball Carrier… And well “voila” Troy Polamalu II is born! I think with Ryan Clark’s LIMITATIONS @ High Altitudes we “may” see Sean @ Safety a LOT earlier in his Career than Any of Steeler-Nation would “like”… But Dick Lebeau ALWAYS puts the Top Player on the Roster in The Right Place @ The Right Time!!

  • LOTUSMAN1

     @Anthony Grescavage  Awesome Article Anthony!!  Insightful & Informative!!  Thanx Bro!!  “Seventh Heaven” is but A “Whisper” away!! 
     
    Peace!!
    Michael

  • DomDiTolla

    Butler says Spence will be playing the “Mack” (Weakside) role, and I think that is exactly where he will stay.  To me, using Spence’s size as a determining factor is a bit silly, because I can point to a few examples of some recent Linebackers from “The U” who had similar skill sets to Spence and have similar frames, and had terrific careers as professionals:
     
    Ray Lewis
    Jonathan Vilma
    Jon Beason
     
    Future Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks was considered to be a Safety by most scouts when coming out, but refused to play there and carved out a fantastic career as a Linebacker for 14 seasons.  Just because guys aren’t Dont’a Hightower’s size doesn’t mean they won’t be successful as an every down Linebacker in the N.F.L..  In fact, Hightower’s size and speed could be exploited by the quicker and more athletic Tight Ends and Backs in the professional ranks on passing downs.
     
    By making Spence an Inside Linebacker, it allows Pittsburgh to keep their Base Defense on the field when he becomes a starter, and helps them even more to disguise coverages, and plant seeds of doubt in the opposition of what they are going to do.  I agree with you on the point that Spence could have a “versatility” impact similar to Polamalu in the event he develops, but developing him into an Inside Linebacker would benefit the team and has the potential to be a sound football decision.

  • jeffsnedden

    Great insight Craig, Spence will be one of the top 3 players I watch like a hawk in Latrobe.  His tape is off the charts.