Earlier this offseason, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin basically said that the starting jobs across about half of the defense can be deemed as legitimately up for grabs in training camp and the preseason this year. This is, of course, not exactly the norm for a team who won double-digit games, along with a division title, in the year prior.
But that is indeed where the Steelers find themselves, with, arguably, three positions in the secondary, and another three at the linebacker level, open for competition. The defensive line is the only unit on defense that has some manner of stability within the starting lineup.
I believe the most interesting competition to watch will take place at inside linebacker next the Lawrence Timmons, where there are three players with starting experience, each of whom logged at least 250 snaps a year ago.
Arguably the player with the best case to make for the starting spot will have to go to second-year player Ryan Shazier, who is technically the incumbent starter going back to opening day. Shazier was the first true opening say defensive starter in over a decade for the Steelers, even though his season did not go the way it was planned.
Shazier stormed out of the gate with an impressive display in his preseason debut, which included an acrobatic interception in front of a tight end in coverage down the field, but outside of some nice flashes of talent here and there, the rest of his year was basically downhill from there.
Of course, his rookie season was dramatically truncated by a string of injuries that limited him to eight games in the regular season. After starting the first three games, he proceeded to miss the next five due to a knee injury. When he returned, he did so as a rotational starter with limited snaps, only to suffer another injury.
Shazier did not return to the lineup until the last three games of the regular season, and when he did so, it was as a situational player, where his playing time came largely within the last five minutes of each half. He also logged more than a third of the snaps in the team’s playoff loss.
In truth, the rookie did nothing spectacular, but that is far from uncommon for a rookie, especially one who misses half a season’s worth of practice time. Overall, his work in coverage was a disappointment, given his athleticism, but it takes time to learn your assignments, and this should improve naturally in year two.
As a run defender, he showed a great many flashes, with an ability to diagnose and attack plays before anybody could get a hand on him, but he had issues getting off blocks due to his size. There is visual evidence that he has put in work this offseason to improve his strength, however.
In many ways, this will be Shazier’s rookie season, during which we should get a much better feel for him as a player. If he is the player the Steelers believed that they were drafting, then the reality is that he should have little difficulty winning the starting job that he was originally handed on a platter as a rookie.