It’s not often, at least not in recent years, that the Pittsburgh Steelers both field a team good enough to make the playoffs and have a defense in which rookies are seeing significant playing time, but that appears to be the case in 2014—and now 2015.
The Steelers, of course, shook off an inconsistent start to win eight of their last 10 games, including a winning streak of four heading into the postseason. Only Seattle posted a better record over that span. They locked up an 11-5 record and the third seed in the AFC.
That four-game winning streak began when second-round rookie defensive end Stephon Tuitt was inserted into the lineup over veteran free agent Cam Thomas. Of course, that’s not to say that they have been winning because of him—in fact, he had his struggles containing the run in the division-clinching season finale—but it does show that they could win with him in the lineup.
Meanwhile, first-round inside linebacker Ryan Shazier may have begun the season being handed a starting job, but he lost it while injured in favor of a platoon of two more veteran players who were waiting in the wings behind him.
However, the Steelers have been getting him more work in the last two games in preparation for re-integrating him into the lineup, and it’s not inconceivable that he may be back in the starting lineup for the postseason.
During the Bengals game, it seemed that the Steelers benched Vince Williams for a stretch, favoring Shazier’s speed and coverage ability in the nickel defense, even though they had elected to play Williams in that package due to his ability to stop the run, which offenses had been taking advantage of.
Of course, Shazier still has plenty of work to put in ahead of him, which is perhaps something that the Steelers coaching staff wasn’t prepared to see in the beginning when they handed him the starting job over Williams, who started most of last season, and Sean Spence, who was in his third year in the system and a former third-round draft pick.
Even if he doesn’t start, recent trends suggest that he will play a key rotational role on Saturday night against the Baltimore Ravens, which means that the Steelers defense will be getting major contributions—at least in terms of quantity—from two rookies. And it will be occurring in a playoff game.
Will they be ready for it? The fact of the matter is that much of this defense is unfamiliar with the playoff experience. Even Cameron Heyward, in his fourth season, has only experienced one playoff game, a bitter road loss in which he did see a healthy number of snaps due to injury but did not play particularly well.
It will be up to veteran players such as Troy Polamalu, William Gay, and James Harrison to paint for these rookies the playoff picture, to make them understand that the game is played at a different speed in January.