PITTSBURGH (AP) In the last several weeks, the Pittsburgh's inside linebackers improved from a depleted, inexperienced group to a strength on the defense.
Ryan Shazier returned after missing four games with an injury. Sean Spence has shaken the rust from two inactive years due to a knee injury, and second-year pro Vince Williams' has shown steady improvement. The three split reps next to Lawrence Timmons in the club's 3-4 defense.
''Through adversity, injury and drafting, we have four inside linebackers that are very capable men,'' Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. ''We're going to continue to use combinations of those three guys, along with Lawrence, to meet our situational needs.''
Shazier returned as a starter last week, replacing Spence, who opened the previous four games while the club's 2014 first-round pick was out with a right knee sprain. Spence is still be getting up to speed, literally and figuratively, after sitting out his opening two NFL seasons because of a left knee injury where a nerve and three ligaments were damaged.
Spence played just one snap Sunday, while Shazier had 30 and Williams had 36. Williams, who replaced Shazier in sub packages, believed he was more mature after an uneven rookie season.
''I feel like I'm more comfortable and know more about what's going on,'' Williams said. ''I missed a sack Sunday, and you've got to make plays when you have the opportunity. I don't really know how it's going to play out with four healthy inside backers, but I'm always ready to go.''
Although he's missed a few snaps this year, Timmons joined strong safety Troy Polamalu and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger as the only Steelers to play every snap last season. Timmons leads with 76 tackles, including 55 solo, one sack, four quarterback pressures and one pass breakup.
''I'm the old guy (28), but we've got some young guys who put in a lot of hard work on the practice field,'' Timmons said. ''And they've shown up in games. So, we've grown a lot together. I try to make myself a lot easier to talk with, because as an eighth-year guy I've seen it all.''
Shazier and Spence have 23 tackles each, even though Shazier missed 4 1/2 games. Williams has just eight tackles with four on special teams. Spence has three solos in kick coverage.
''I think I had to knock some rust off during the first couple games, but I feel like I'm starting to get into my groove,'' Spence said. ''It was two years since I played, so I really had to get into game shape and get some game reps.''
Shazier is the wild card, a player with an abundance of athleticism and speed. Once he regains his game legs, he and Timmons could be a lethal pair.
''I feel like I'm getting there,'' Shazier said. ''I still have a lot of rehabbing and improvement to make, but I'm getting better every day. And I'll continue to improve with every practice and game rep.
''We're all starting to gain chemistry and confidence, so we're going to be a lot better for it as a team.''
NOTES: CB Ike Taylor (right forearm) and S Ross Ventrone were ruled out for Sunday, while all other injured players were probable. . Shazier, OT Marcus Gilbert (concussion), NT Steve McLendon (right shoulder), FS Mike Mitchell (groin), TE Matt Spaeth (hamstring) and S Shamarko Thomas (hamstring) were full-time participants in practice Friday and are expected to play.
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