While Ryan Shazier may seemingly be back to full health, he evidently has a ways to go before the regains his full status as a starter on the Pittsburgh Steelers defense.
Shazier has missed seven of the Steelers’ first 13 games in his rookie season, as well as extensive parts of two others, due to an assortment of injuries, which has kept him off not only the playing field on game days, but also the practice field. That has hurt his progression back into the defensive rotation.
But so, too, has the play of those who have replaced him for the majority of the season, Sean Spence and Vince Williams. In Shazier’s absence, the two young inside linebackers have been given the opportunity to not only grow, but to stake their claim on playing time.
Between them, the two combined to play every snap at inside linebacker. In his first game back from injury since November 11, Shazier was relegated to special teams duties only, a week after being held out, despite allegedly being healthy, due to time missed.
In general, Spence—the third-year inside linebacker who is nevertheless seeing his first year on the field due to a knee injury suffered in his rookie preseason—has been the starter and the mack linebacker in the base defense.
Williams, on the other hand, has seen just as much, if not more playing time in recent weeks. The Steelers have been using the larger, run-stuffing linebacker in sub-packages in order to circumvent opposing offenses taking advantage of Pittsburgh’s smaller size. When Williams is in the game, it frees up Lawrence Timmons to serve a more active role as the mack linebacker.
While both young linebackers have had their ups and downs, it has been by and large a rotational system that has worked for much of the season, particularly of late. That, naturally, raises the question of when Shazier will see the field again.
In his press conference yesterday, head coach Mike Tomlin said that the rookie first-round draft pick would have to earn his way back into the starting lineup, although one could argue that he never had to earn it in the first place.
Shazier was inserted into the starting lineup immediately upon practicing with the defense for the first time, and there was no competition for the starting job, despite the fact that he missed much of the preseason with another injury.
After he returned from missing four games due to injury, Shazier was placed back into the starting lineup earlier this season, though he was on a snap count all the same. It hasn’t been the same this time around, being held out while healthy and then playing only on special teams.
Of course, we’re entering the most critical part of the season where working a rookie back into the starting lineup could cause disruptions, and thus breakdowns, in the defense. Shazier will have to show that will not be an issue to get back on the field.