Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has spent a good deal of his talking time this offseason to emphasize the importance of sub-package football in today’s league. Yet when he had a top cornerback available to him at the 15th overall pick, which nobody would have considered a reach, he instead took a linebacker.
If the idea is the maximize your ability to play with a plethora of defensive backs on the field, then it would have been a good decision to take the defensive back in the first round, particularly a cornerback with Darqueze Dennard’s skill set and tackling ability when it comes to playing against the run.
Ryan Shazier is not just a common linebacker, however, and in fact I believe he helps gear the Steelers toward sub-package football, or a derivation of it.
Shazier has rare speed for his position (Kevin Colbert said that the team clocked him at an even 4.4 time in the 40-yard dash). He’s faster than Dennard and many other defensive backs and wide receivers that are slated to be drafted this year.
Pair him with the quick and highly athletic Lawrence Timmons at the inside linebacker position, and that opens the Steelers defense to playing a plethora of looks without taking their linebackers off the field.
Though his athleticism grants him the ability to carry out a variety of assignments, I don’t think it would be accurate necessarily to describe him as a hybrid player. Still, his abilities grant the Steelers the opportunity to explore more exotic disguises on defense.
Imagine having two inside linebackers that you would feel comfortable covering wide receivers down the field on occasion. Add in Shamarko Thomas and Sean Spence into the mix, and we start to see where Tomlin’s thought process is on the defensive side of the ball: highly athletic and versatile players that none the less can lay the big hit and play above the neck.
Contrast that to last season, when the Steelers began the season with the ironically slow-footed Larry Foote, whom you generally wouldn’t want to trust in coverage more than you have to.
After his injury, he gave way to Vince Williams, a lumbering rookie thumper who already came into the league with a reputation as a two-down linebacker.
The Steelers tried to limit his playing time despite asking him to start, and by year’s end they were trying to replace him on passing downs with Terence Garvin, a rookie undrafted free agent. More often than not, however, offenses took advantage of the mismatch and ran the ball against him.
For most of the season, however, it was strong safety Troy Polamalu occupying a quasi-middle linebacker role in place of Williams for large stretches of games. While this led to occasional successes (such as Polamalu’s career-high five forced fumbles), it wasn’t generally a favorable alternative.
Shazier should help not only keep the linebackers on the field while simultaneously not hurting the passing defense, but also keep Polamalu back at safety, where at this stage of his career he’s better suited to running forward than backward.