With the Pittsburgh Steelers coming off their bye week and little to talk about in the interim outside of returning players, now would be as good a time as any to take a look back on what’s transpired this season and give out some mid-year player evaluations.
The team as a whole has suffered its ups and downs throughout the season, particularly the bi-polar offense that prefers the comforts of home. Even with all the road struggles, however, the Steelers are ranked seventh in the league in scoring, averaging 26.2 points per game.
On the flip side, the defense has struggled not only with youth and inexperience but also with injuries, en route to posting the 19th-best defense in points allowed, giving up 23.9 points per game, with hopes to start changing that down the home stretch.
Player: Ryan Shazier, RILB
Like his fellow recent first-round draft pick, Jarvis Jones, rookie inside linebacker Ryan Shazier has had a hard time staying on the field for the Steelers this season, having already suffered three separate injuries dating back to the preseason, which has kept him out of six regular season games, and parts of two others.
As has been the case at Jones’ right outside linebacker spot, the Steelers have used a platoon effort to absorb the rookie’s missing snaps, between former 2012 third-round draft pick Sean Spence, who has finally recovered from a severe knee injury, and Vince Williams, who played most of the season last year as a rookie despite being frequently taken off the field in passing situations.
Ironically, Williams is now seeing the vast majority of his time in the nickel in order to help counteract the Steelers’ run defense deficiencies with the extra defensive back on the field. Spence has been serviceable at times, but the Steelers should definitely benefit from a healthy Shazier.
After seemingly setting the world on fire with a slew of tackles and an impressive interception, Shazier’s integration into the ranks of professional football crashed back down to reality. In the early portion of his season in particular, he struggled to get off of blocks against the run, and lost his positioning in coverage when the quarterback was able to hang on to the ball, which resulted in him giving up a number of receptions, including big third down conversions.
When he did return after missing four and a half games due to a friendly fire knee injury, he played limited snaps, but he made them count, particularly showing impressive growth in his understanding of his pass coverage assignments. The Steelers also began getting him more involved in the pass rush.
He suffered another injury in his second game back, however, and has played just under 200 snaps on the season. It’s likely that if he does start, or play, in the next game, he will continue to be worked back on a pitch count until both he and the coaching staff are comfortable with his conditioning and level of play.