Steelers looking for Sean Spence to step up game at inside linebacker

Steelers rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier was feeling good about his chances of playing on “Monday Night Football” when he returned to the practice field last week.

Even though he's listed as questionable against the Houston Texans, Shazier isn't likely to line up at Heinz Field. Instead, Sean Spence again will be challenged when the Steelers face one of the league's best running teams.

Admittedly, Spence and outside linebacker Arthur Moats are feeling the heat. While neither has played poorly, they haven't distinguished themselves, especially against the run.

That, of course, has to change if the Steelers are to slow down Texans running back Arian Foster.

“A lot of people are questioning me and Sean,” Moats said. “We know they're asking if we're good enough, but we get a chance to prove ourselves on “Monday Night Football.”

Spence, though, said it will take a team effort to shut down Houston's running game. The goal, he added, is to force quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to lean more on an erratic passing game that features wide receiver Andre Johnson.

“Houston has a great receiver, but this is a run-first team,” Spence said. “If we get them one-dimensional, it's to our advantage.

“As a defense, we have to be gap sound. Everyone from the defensive line to the safeties have to fit into their gaps because Foster is one of the best backs in the league. He has great vision, and if guys get out of their gaps, he'll find it.”

In 2011, Foster exploited nearly every gap, seam and crease. Ultimately, he wore down a leg-weary defense as he rushed for 155 yards, including a game-clinching 42-yard run in a 17-10 victory.

“I heard about that,” said Spence, a third-round draft pick in 2012. “The (coaches) talk about it all the time.

“The speed you see on film is not equivalent to Foster's game speed. On film he floats. In real action, he's running by you. So, we have to get more than one hat on him.”

In other words, the defense must get physical with Foster.

Spence acknowledged that while most everyone ignored former Steelers receiver Hines Ward's criticism that the defense is soft, there is pressure to prove that getting run over twice by Cleveland's ground game is a mere aberration, not the norm.

“The whole defense takes exception to those comments,” Spence said. “The Steelers defense has never been called soft. With that perception out there, we have to change it immediately.”

Yet, the defense is ranked 15th against the run and 23rd in rushing yards per attempt. The Steelers allowed 406 combined rushing yards in three games: Cleveland twice and Baltimore. But they limited Carolina, Jacksonville and Tampa Bay to 161 rushing yards.

The Texans aren't likely to deviate from a game plan that worked three seasons ago. They might be even more persistent with the ground game, considering Spence and Moats are still trying to fit into a rather complex defense.

“The biggest thing is stopping the run,” said Moats, who will split time with James Harrison. “When they're forced to pass, they can be rattled as they were against Indianapolis (in a 33-28 loss).

“We've had our ups and downs, but we're jelling. The communication has been much better this week than it has been in previous weeks.”

“We can talk about what we have to do, but we have to make plays,” Spence said. “If you do your job, the plays will come to you. We can't force it because that's how Cleveland hurt us with the run game.”

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