We liked what we heard from Stevenson Sylvester in the interview we did with him this spring. Part of it was about his focus. In losing captain and longtime starter James Farrior, leadership will be lacking on the defensive side of the ball. Sylvester heads into training camp as the back-up to starting buck inside linebacker Larry Foote, and could find himself in a starting role at some point.
He's going to have to look both up at Foote and down at rookie Sean Spence, who was said to have looked pretty good at the buck position during OTAs and minicamps.
The Steelers drafted Spence, saying he would be groomed to play the mack linebacker spot, behind starter Lawrence Timmons. As any smart staff would do, though, they used him in a few different roles, but they saw enough to suggest Spence could potentially play what's more commonly seem as a strong-side, gap-filling buck instead of the flow-to-the-ball mack spot.
Sylvester has been with the team for the last three years, getting his first start last year against New England. While Sylvester didn't look his best during that game, he played a good number of snaps in Week 9 against Baltimore, and held his own a bit more.
It's difficult to see Foote being replaced any time soon. His experience in the defense is a critical component to the position. It is responsible for pre-snap adjustments and communication with the other 10 defenders on the field. While Sylvester continues to learn those nuances, the battle between he and Spence will come more in sub-package possibilities. Spence is the better athlete of the two, but is smaller and has far less experience in the terminology of the defense and the players around him.
Spence's skill is really in coverage, and his size almost suggests he's a really large safety as opposed to even a weakside linebacker. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin loves athletes, and the selection of Spence, not to mention the selection of Timmons (his first-ever draft pick in 2007), another smaller but insanely athletic linebacker, confirms that.
As far as the nickel package goes, Foote was off the field in that spot last year. Both Sylvester and Spence are faster than Foote is, and the competition between the two will most likely come on passing downs, when the distinction between mack and buck grays a bit.
Seeing the two of them do battle will probably bleed from camp into the season, and could even extend to next season, when Foote likely will not be back in a Steelers uniform.
Odds favor Sylvester by a bit at this point, but it's hard to keep a good athlete off the field. Spence could see time this year in specialty situations.