For the first time in three seasons with the Steelers, L.J. Fort had a regular role on defense by the end of 2017.
Already a standout on special teams, Fort played on passing downs over the final five games, including playoffs.
And like anyone in his position, Fort is now blood-thirsty for a permanent role as a starting linebacker.
“Personally, I played more than I have in the past years here,” Fort told TribLive's Chris Adamski “and I just felt like it was good to get that experience. I feel like that made me a better player moving forward.”
Fort teamed with Sean Spence to replace Ryan Shazier after Shazier's serious spinal injury Dec. 4. With Shazier's playing future in doubt, the Steelers will be looking for help at inside linebacker this offseason, be it in the free-agent market and/or in the draft.
After starter Vince Williams and top backup Tyler Matakevich, the Steelers do not have any inside linebackers under contract for 2018, though practice-squad player Keith Kelsey was signed to a reserve/future deal. Matakevich did not play on defense after Dec. 4 because of a shoulder injury that required surgery after the season.
Fort has played 46 regular-season games since signing with the Browns as an undrafted free agent in 2012, but he only started one and only played 120 defensive snaps since his rookie season in Cleveland.
Does Fort see a role for himself on the Steelers' defense next season?
“For sure, that's my goal, so I'll keep striving for that,” he told TribLive. “It's cool now being so comfortable with the playbook. We will see what's going on moving forward.”
Fort played 78 defensive snaps this past season (in addition to 285 on special teams) after playing 42 in 2016 (plus 207 on special teams). He signed with the Steelers in 2015 but did not appear in any regular-season games that year.
A somewhat-undersized linebacker out of Northern Iowa, Fort (6-foot, 232 pounds) started at linebacker for the Browns in his regular-season debut.
He played in 16 games for Cleveland that year, but his only regular-season appearance over the next three years was 17 special-teams snaps for Seattle in a 2014 game.
But he has found a home in Pittsburgh, mostly as a “core four” special teams player. Over the past two seasons, Fort has played the third-most special teams snaps of any Steelers player.
As TribLive noted, he was credited with at least one pass breakup in five of the six games he played after Shazier and Matakevich were injured.
“That's just what the coaches decided,” Fort said of his coverage-heavy duties. “I hadn't been particularly (known as a) pass defender until this year. It was just a role they gave me.”
What's on Fort's offseason agenda?
“Just become a better well-tuned athlete,” he said, “and study film to pick up tendencies so that I can anticipate (plays) better coming up this next year.”