Pittsburgh Steelers first-round draft pick Ryan Shazier was given the starting mack linebacker spot from the very first time he stepped on a practice field. He didn’t have to earn it at all, despite the fact that the player who started most of the season the year before was still on the roster.
Of course, the combined experience and playing time of Vince Williams and Sean Spence didn’t amount to much at the time, so perhaps the coaching staff felt it wasn’t much of a stretch to assume that the defense would be better off with a plug-and-play rookie instead of a second-year late-rounder or a third-year player seeing the field for the first time.
Of course, Shazier hasn’t been so plug and play since his impressive preseason debut, and injuries have kept him off the field for most of his rookie season. In fact, even when he got healthy after the bye week, he was still kept off defensive duties, in part because of the performance of the players ahead of him, but also because he was not showing that putting him in there would benefit the team.
It wasn’t until last Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs that Shazier received a decent amount of playing time, and that time came largely in mop up duty at the end of the first and second halves of the game.
Shazier was involved in three plays in close succession toward the end of the second quarter, and as you can see above, it wasn’t always the most positive experience. On the Chiefs’ first play of the drive, he missed an open field tackle on the admittedly elusive Jamaal Charles through the gap right at the line of scrimmage, allowing him to go for seven yards.
These are the types of plays Steelers linebackers can’t afford not to make. Especially when they’re in a heated competition for playing time. A few plays after the above, Shazier missed another tackle at the tail end of a long gain on a screen pass that was the result of another missed tackle.
After the long gain, Shazier settled down into coverage on first and 10, gravitating toward wide receiver Dwayne Bowe as he angled toward the middle of the field. The ball was delivered too quickly for him to make a play on it, but he did at least manage to make the tackle as the catch was made to minimize the yardage.
Another less than graceful play showed up a few snaps later as he tripped over the legs of a defender, only to get up and run past the ball carrier, who had gained 12 yards.
As mentioned, most of the rest of his playing time came in garbage time late in the fourth quarter. This is just one example of him dropping back and coming up to keep any play in front of him.