PITTSBURGH (AP) — This is not the way Arthur Moats or anybody else wanted the veteran linebacker to get back into the regular rotation for the Pittsburgh Steelers defense.
As teammate Ryan Shazier rested in a hospital on Thursday recovering from surgery to stabilize his injured spine, his long-term prognosis still uncertain, Moats set about getting familiar with Shazier’s spot at inside linebacker in preparation for Sunday night’s game against Baltimore.
It’s a position Moats hardly considers “his” for the rest of the season.
“That’s the last thing I’m concerned about,” Moats said.
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Not when there’s still so much unknown about Shazier.
The 25-year-old left Paul Brown Stadium in an ambulance on Monday night after injuring his spine while hitting Cincinnati wide receiver Josh Malone in the first quarter of Pittsburgh’s 23-20 victory.
Shazier spent about 36 hours in a Cincinnati hospital before being transported to Pittsburgh on Wednesday. Team doctors and neurosurgeons Drs. David Okwonkow and Joseph Maroon performed surgery to stabilize Shazier’s spine on Wednesday night.
“If they say that’s the best thing for him, we’re all for it,” Moats said. “Admittedly that’s our brother. You’re always nervous seeing him go down on Monday and at the end of the day we’re just praying for him.”
The Steelers signed linebacker Sean Spence — who spent three seasons with the team after being selected in the third round of the 2012 draft — on Wednesday to provide depth.
Spence, however, hasn’t played since being released by Indianapolis in October. And with backup Tyler Matakevich dealing with a shoulder injury, Moats will line up next to Vince Williams when the Steelers (10-2) look to clinch the AFC North against the Ravens (7-5).
Moats moved frequently between inside and outside linebacker after the Buffalo Bills took him in the sixth round of the 2010 draft, but has worked exclusively on the outside since signing with Pittsburgh in 2014. That changed this week, when the coaches called him on Tuesday and told him to get ready to move inside.
“If you’re a linebacker on this team you should know what everybody on the field is doing every defense,” defensive coordinator Keith Butler said.
“The reason (Moats) has stayed around as long as he has is because he does know that. Knowing it and doing it are two different things. We hope he can help us.”
Something Moats has done regularly when called on. He rolled up 11½ sacks from 2014-16 before taking on a lesser role this season behind Bud Dupree and rookie T.J. Watt.
Though he lacks Shazier’s elite speed — Moats joked he runs a 4.3 40-yard dash like Shazier but it’s “wind-aided” — at 246 pounds he has the size to be effective against the run and the institutional knowledge so that being forced into the lineup so quickly shouldn’t be an issue.
“Ever since my situation in Buffalo where I would switch positions sometimes in the middle of the year from inside to outside, whether it’s 4-3 or 3-4, I’ve always been aware of what’s going on at the position and helps me understand defenses in general.”
Though Butler allowed Spence isn’t quite in “football shape” after being out of work for two months, Spence’s mere presence is a testament to both Pittsburgh’s trust in him and Spence’s perseverance.
Spence was a rookie nearing the end of an impressive training camp in 2012 when he stepped awkwardly in the preseason finale against Carolina and tore two ligaments in his left knee, leading to a long and painful rehab that robbed him of his first two seasons and threatened his career.
He returned in 2014 and played in a reserve role across two seasons before signing as a free agent with Tennessee, a move facilitated in part by Shazier’s emergence.
Back in Pittsburgh, Spence is all too familiar with the prospect of having your life severely altered by what looks like a routine play. He was able to recover. Shazier’s prognosis remains far murkier.
In their limited contact with Shazier, his teammates say he’s done nothing but encourage them to continue to push forward. Spence is ready to shake off the rust and put his hand in a pile that feels familiar even after two-plus seasons away.
“People are saying he wants to be around, he’s asking about all the guys here,” Spence said. “He wants us to go out there and play for him. Go out and win for him.”
NOTES: Matakevich and CB Joe Haden (fractured leg) did not practice on Thursday. … WR Antonio Brown (toe) also did not practice while Watt was limited (knee). … S Mike Mitchell (ankle) and TE Vance McDonald (ankle) were full participants.
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