Steelers notebook: Watershed moment for Spence, but starters yield early TD



EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Sean Spence is one of the lucky ones. He is getting to play football again.

After a severe knee injury that could have ended his career, Spence played his first football game in two years Saturday night when he started the Steelers' preseason opener against the New York Giants.

"Words can't really explain it," Spence said after the Steelers opened with a 20-16 loss. "Emotions were running very high. It's a blessing to be back on the field, with my teammates, doing what I love."

A third-round draft choice in 2012 who was on track to be a starter, Spence was injured in the final preseason game against the Carolina Panthers that year when he tore three knee ligaments, dislocated his kneecap and damaged the peroneal nerve on a seemingly harmless play.

Damage to the peroneal nerve leads to a loss of movement and sensation in the foot and leg. If the nerve didn't properly regenerate, Spence would not have been able to play again.

The same type of injury ended the career of Steelers rookie linebacker Elnardo Webster in 1991.

Spence, though, has not missed a day of practice this summer at Saint Vincent College and has performed well enough that he, not Vince Williams, started for injured rookie Ryan Shazier against the Giants.

"I wanted to cry for him," said inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons. "A lot of people don't understand, we play this game and he had to sit for a year or two and watch. It's just unbelievable for him."

Spence played well, too, combining for three tackles and forcing a hurried pass by quarterback Ryan Nassib on third down in the second quarter.

"It's a blessing for him to get back on the field," said outside linebacker Jarvis Jones. "He was excited for it and we were excited for it, too. He made a lot of plays, too. I'm very happy for him."

Familiar struggles

The Steelers gave up 11 scrimmage plays of more than 50 yards in 2013, most in the league. Of those, four were running plays.

It didn't take long for the same malaise to strike again.

On the Giants' second possession, running back Rashad Jennings cut through a hole in the middle of the line and ran 73 yards for a touchdown.

"That run was a no-no," Timmons said. "It's easy to recall and look back at all the long runs last year, like the Oakland game."

The run came while the Steelers were in their nickel defense that features two down linemen and five defensive backs. That was one of the offseason objectives after the Steelers finished 21st in the league in rush defense -- how to effectively stop the run while using so many packages with five or more defensive backs.

On the play, Timmons got blocked by the pulling guard, safety Will Allen missed a tackle and free safety Mike Mitchell took a bad angle and couldn't catch Jennings.

"We're going to have a breakout run every now and then," coach Mike Tomlin said. "But we've got to get them down in the secondary. I'm more concerned when those things do happen, we minimize the explosive play and make it a 10 or 15-yard run, not 73."

Sight for sore eyes

Jones, last year's first-round pick, had just one sack in his rookie season. But he had that many in a limited appearance when he sacked Eli Manning on first down. Perhaps more significant is that Jones got to Manning using an inside rush, something he couldn't effectively do in his rookie season. "The tackle jumped outside and gave me the inside," Jones said. "He gave me room to work on the inside and I took the inside and got up field."

Between the 30s

Shaun Suisham hasn't missed a field goal between 40 and 49 yards that counted since the final game of the 2011 season, hitting 20 in a row. And he has made 28 of 29 field goals between the 20 and 29 since coming to the Steelers midway through the 2010 season.

But, for some strange reason, Suisham has been much less accurate on attempts between 30 and 39 yards, missing four of 31 kicks from that distance in the past three seasons. It happened again against the Giants when he was wide right with a 38-yard attempt in the second quarter. Suisham, though, wiped out any bad vibes when he converted a 38-yard field goal in the third and a 32-yarder in the fourth.

Finding a groove

After the starters departed, Mike Adams played most of the game at left tackle and performed very well, especially in protection -- an area where he has struggled.

Granted, Adams was playing against the Giants' second- and third-team linemen, but it was the best he has looked in a long time.

"It feels great to get out there, get my feet wet and get a chance to play for a while," Adams said. "For an offensive lineman, when you get in the game and get to play a lot, it's better because you get into a rhythm."

On the injury front

Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu was in uniform, but did not play. "I elected not to play him," Tomlin said.

The scratches were Shazier, who injured his right knee last Sunday and hasn't practiced since; nose tackle Steve McLendon, who missed the past five practices with a concussion; and receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, who returned Thursday after a week off with a concussion.

Guard Ramon Foster was poked in the eye on the second offensive series and did not return.

Gerry Dulac: gdulac@post-gazette.com and Twitter @gerrydulac.


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