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Pittsburgh Steelers: Sean Spence’s Return Would Be a Different Kind of Victory

Even though the Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t make the playoffs in 2012, Charlie Batch did lead them to a dramatic upset of the eventual Super Bowl-champion Baltimore Ravens in early December.

When Shaun Suisham’s field goal sailed through the uprights as time ran out in Baltimore, Batch and Ben Roethlisberger embraced for at least 30 seconds. They knew they were nearing the end of a nine-year working relationship.

It was a lasting image that provided a reason to feel good about an otherwise fruitless season.

If the Steelers miss the playoffs again this year – only six of 118 teams that started 1-4 have made the playoffs since 1990 – there could be another moment that turns into the emotional highlight of the season.

What a scene it would be if before a game at Heinz Field No. 51 hears his name announced and runs through that tunnel.

No, James Farrior is not attempting a comeback.

Sean Spence is.

The odds are against Spence playing for the Steelers this season, but he’s already beaten very long odds.

Spence, an inside linebacker who the Steelers chose in the third round of the 2012 NFL draft, practiced for the first time Wednesday after suffering a gruesome knee injury in a preseason game in 14 months ago.

Watching his University of Miami highlights, you couldn’t help but think of Troy Polamalu. With dreadlocks protruding from the back of his helmet, the 5’11”, 231-pound Spence flew all over the field.

During the 2012 preseason, Spence appeared on track to be the eventual successor to Farrior. But in the fourth preseason game, he suffered torn anterior collateral and lateral collateral ligaments, a dislocated kneecap and damage to the peroneal nerve in his left knee. The peroneal nerve controls foot movement, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

While Spence underwent grueling rehabilitation, the Steelers appeared ready to move on without him when they took inside linebacker Vince Williams in the sixth round of the 2013 draft. Linebackers coach Keith Butler told the Post-Gazette in May that it would be “miraculous” if Spence ever played again.

Mike Tomlin was more optimistic, and now Spence is a lot closer to playing again.

Spence is off the physically-unable-to-perform list, and the Steelers have three weeks to decide whether to put him on their 53-man roster, place him on injured reserve for the rest of the season or waive him.

Before Spence’s first practice, Jim Wexell of Steel City Insider said he would most likely go on IR. That became even more likely when Spence broke a finger in practice Wednesday, according to Steel City Insider. It could force him to miss valuable practice time.

If Spence has to wait until next season to play, he’d have that much more time to heal and he would be like a bonus draft pick for a team that might be looking for inside linebackers in 2014.

Since Larry Foote was lost for the season with a torn biceps in Week 1, Kion Wilson has started twice at left inside linebacker and Williams has started once.

The Steelers waived Wilson, then put him on the practice squad.

Next to Lawrence Timmons, Williams has played the most snaps for the Steelers at inside linebacker with 145, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). The site ranks Williams 36th among all NFL 3-4 inside linebackers who have played at least 25 percent of their team’s snaps. Timmons, by comparison, is ranked 25th.

The Steelers also brought back Stevenson Sylvester after cutting him in the preseason. Sylvester has been on the field for 75 defensive snaps in three seasons.

A healthy Spence would at least provide needed depth at inside linebacker, whether he does it this season or next season.

Considering all he’s overcome, the fact that Spence can realistically think about playing again should inspire a team that’s facing long odds to make the playoffs.

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