Pittsburgh Steelers rookie inside linebacker Ryan Shazier finally returned to the field on defense for the first time in five games against the Atlanta Falcons, playing four snaps and registering two tackles in the process.
The first-rounder, who began the season as a starter, has battled injuries during his freshman campaign, missing four games earlier in the year and then recently another three, not including the bye week, due to a separate ailment.
Shazier returned to play last week, but only saw time playing on special teams, being kept off the field by Sean Spence and Vince Williams. And the reality is that he may not have seen any playing time on defense in this game either had it not been for in-game injuries.
Shazier played four snaps in two separate spurts, both times following injuries in the second quarter. In the first instance, Lawrence Timmons was injured attempting to make a tackle on a running play. He and Spence came off the field and were replaced by Williams (at the buck) and Shazier (at the mack).
On his first defensive snap in about a month and a half, Shazier lined up in a traditional set and read a screen pass, but he was picked off by the center working at the second level and the wide receiver was able to navigate the block to gain 10 yards.
Later in the quarter, Williams was injured after colliding with Timmons, causing him to miss the final three snaps of the half, which Shazier played. In these instances, he lined up outside, on the left side of the defensive formation.
On the first play, he made the tackle on the tight end after four-yard gain. Though he allowed the first down, the key to the play was that he was able to keep the Falcons inbounds and keep the clock running or force them to use their timeouts.
Shazier followed the same zone drop pattern on the next snap, but the play did not come in his direction. On the final snap of the half, he was sent on the blitz, coming in clean around the right tackle and flushing Matt Ryan to his left and out of the pocket. He had no other choice but to scramble, unable to get off a hail mary attempt.
While he may not have been part of the defensive game plan for the Steeler this past Sunday, there is reason to believe that that might change against the Kansas City Chiefs, and not simply because he has gotten a taste of playing again.
The Chiefs rely on a passing attack that tends not to go vertical very often. We have discussed how much of their offense in the passing game in funneled through their tight ends and running backs, as opposed to their wide receivers, none of whom have a touchdown reception this year. Of Alex Smith’s 18 touchdown passes, nine of gone to tight ends and nine have gone to running backs. Shazier’s speed would be an asset in defending them.