As Pittsburgh Steelers inside linebacker Ryan Shazier heads into his second season, scheduled to return to the starting spot that was handed to him during his rookie year, a certain level of reflection naturally takes place looking back on the story arc of his first year in the league.
The chief recollection for just about everybody when it comes to his 2014 season will naturally be the injuries. He suffered three different injuries that caused him to miss about half of his rookie season. An injury during training camp even caused him to miss the team’s first preseason game.
But he performed spectacularly when he made his own preseason debut, picking off a pass by cutting in front of a tight end down the seam. He was seemingly in on every tackle for the quarter and a half or so that he played, with his stat line for the contest officially going down as 11 solo tackles with one interception and one pass defensed.
If nothing had cemented his place in the starting lineup by that point, his performance in that game certainly had. And he did start the regular season, the first rookie on defense to start on opening day in over a decade.
He registered 20 tackles in his first three games before getting injured, and he would never be a full-time starter again for the rest of the year. He sat out the next four games, and while he returned as a starter after, he was placed on a snap count, playing less than half the time.
It was only two games before he was injured again, missing another four weeks, and when he returned, he was a reserve, looking for scraps at the end of each half. This is not a commentary on his performance, or his abilities. This is simply the reality of what happens when a young player is not on the practice field.
Shazier should be able to take off in his second season, and that is also the feeling within the team facility, according to Bob Labriola, who recently relayed during a live segment on the team’s website that the team evaluator responsible for tracking his every snap during the year came away more satisfied with the tape than many would have expected.
Overall, he said, after accounting for the early rookie miscues stemming from not knowing what to do and the time it takes for a young player to become reacclimated after returning from an injury, the team found that there were a lot of good things that Shazier was able to put on tape during his approximately 300 or so snaps.
In particular was cited his ability to get to places on the field that other linebackers in the league cannot get to who lack his uncommon speed for the inside linebacker position. This should be his bread and butter in year two, after the game has slowed down for him, emerging as a sideline-to-sideline enforcer, and aided by the addition of 8-10 pounds of additional muscle in an ongoing process to get stronger.
It’s very possible that we see Shazier become the player that we saw in that first preseason game in which his presence was felt on seemingly every play, because that is probably the game in which his mind was racing the least, just going forward and playing football with no reservations or game plans. And that’s just what the defense needs him to be.