Pittsburgh Steelers rookie inside linebacker Ryan Shazier began his first practice in the team’s starting lineup, so it’s no surprise that the coaching staff put him back into the lineup right away despite the fact that he missed four weeks of practices with a knee injury.
Not that they just dropped him in the game and let him go without another thought. It was evident during the game, and confirmed by head coach Mike Tomlin after the fact, that the rookie was on a snap count.
Shazier ended up playing 30 of the team’s 67 defensive snaps, with Sean Spence logging one snap—for seemingly no reason, even though it was a good snap—and second-year linebacker Vince Williams plugging away for the other 36, by for the most playing team he’s seen since the middle of last season, as a matter of fact.
The interesting aspect of using Williams as a substitute for the rookie Shazier is the fact that it allows Lawrence Timmons to shift over from the buck to the mack, where he spent the first seven years of his career.
Whether there’s any conscious decision on the coaches’ part to get Timmons some time at the mack, possibly to save him some wear and tear later on in the season, I can’t speculate with any degree of certainty, but that may be in the end result all the same.
Whether or not, or how much, that continues to happen, however, will be up to Shazier as he looks to put a stranglehold on not just his starting spot, but his playing time. Even before his injury, the coaching staff liked to spell him for a drive or two a game just to keep his head from swimming.
While his snaps were limited on Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts, however, initial impressions suggest that he was playing with greater instinctual awareness and thinking less, and as a result, playing more reliable football.
The vast majority of his snaps in this past game came in pass coverage, and he really did quite a solid job in that. Early in the game, for example, he blew up a running back screen at the line of scrimmage for no gain after the rest of the defense had overrun the play. He got a hand on a slightly misfired pass later in the game as well. He can be fairly credited with giving up two receptions for about five yards.
Dick LeBeau also sent him on a couple of blitzes, drawing pressure once and showing off his impressive speed in doing so. As his understanding of the intricacies of the defensive system develops, his pass rush will be a serious component of that system.
The first step in accomplishing that is getting on the field and staying on the field, of course, even though Tomlin has said that he intends to continue utilizing Williams and Spence.