October 03, 2014

PITTSBURGH (AP) The intensity level was palpable for Sean Spence as he prepared to run onto the field.

Really, who could blame him? It was an entrance more than two years in the making for the Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker, who started his first NFL game against Tampa Bay last week at Heinz Field. Spence missed the entire 2012 and 2013 seasons while recovering from a knee injury that threatened to end his pro career before it began.

''The crowd was screaming, the stadium was rocking, and I was ready. I came out of the tunnel, and my eyes were watering,'' Spence said. ''I didn't want to cry, but it definitely felt good. It was an amazing feeling.''

A first NFL start is a monumental moment for any player. But for the third-year pro from Miami, it was gargantuan. Spence spent two long falls watching the Steelers go through consecutive 8-8 seasons after tearing three ligaments and suffering extensive nerve damage in his left knee in the final preseason game in 2012. The road back was arduous, both mentally and emotionally.

''I worked very hard to get to this point,'' Spence said. ''After missing two years, it's just great to be back with the guys on a full-time basis. And getting my first start was a blessing, so I want to take advantage of every opportunity. My whole body was sore after that game, but no problems with the knee.''

That's good news for Spence and the Steelers (2-2) heading into Sunday's game against Jacksonville (0-4). Spence will make his second start in place of rookie Ryan Shazier. Pittsburgh's first-round pick this spring is dealing with a sprained right knee.

''I'm doing good,'' Shazier said Friday, although he will miss a second straight game. ''Yeah, I'm doing real good and doing everything that they ask me to do to get better. And I'm getting there.''

Shazier did not know how long it would take for him to return to game action or even start running again, as he is just rehabbing the knee while working out on a treadmill, in an exercise pool and a stationary bike. For now, he's OK with standing on the sideline and pulling for Spence.

''He's doing a great job, and I keep cheering for him,'' Shazier said. ''That's a great story right there, what happened to that guy and where he is now. And if we can have as many great linebackers as possible, nobody can stop us. So, we have to make this group as good as possible, and we'll have a great defense.''

Notes: CB Ike Taylor (right forearm) did not practice Friday and are out this week. . WR Martavis Bryant (illness), WR Markus Wheaton (groin), OG Ramon Foster, OT Marcus Gilbert (ankle) and OLB James Harrison (illness) are probable. . Foster and Wheaton both said they will play against Jacksonville, although Wheaton was limited in practice Friday. Foster missed the past two games


AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

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