A lot has happened in the year since the Pittsburgh Steelers first took the field for OTAs last Spring, particularly when it comes to the team’s 2014 first-round draft pick, Ryan Shazier. But just like last year, he opens up the offseason in the starting lineup, at the mack linebacker position across from Lawrence Timmons.
Shazier was phased out of the starting lineup last year in part due to the myriad injuries that he suffered and in part due to the rhythm and success that the defense was finding with the combination of Sean Spence and Vince Williams playing ahead of him.
After his final injury, it took him a while to even get back on the field to see some playing time, and he never did get back into the starting lineup. But 2015 is a new year, and a new leaf has turned, and the troubles of his rookie season are in the rearview mirror.
Shazier confirmed to Mike Prisuta earlier this week that he is “back in my normal spot”, or in the starting lineup next to Timmons. He added, “I’m back in the same spot I was last year at this time”.
And the spot he was in last year has certainly not been the norm for Steelers rookies by any means. I struggle to recall the last time that a rookie, under conventional circumstances, took the field to begin his first team practice with the starters. Not even Maurkice Pouncey was given that privilege.
He likely would have stayed there the entire season had he not been continually banged up, suffering injuries on three separate occasions, including one during training camp. Shazier missed two sets of four-game stretches during his rookie season due to separate injury incidents, but he did regain his starting spot—albeit in a rotation—in the two games that he played in between injuries.
That was not the case upon his second return. By that point, he had simply fallen too far behind in his development, missing half a season’s worth of practices. The Steelers are very particular about young players earning their playing time on the practice field, and you can’t do that by watching.
But last year is last year. Training with James Harrison during the offseason, Shazier has put on another 8-10 pounds, which should help improve his durability as well as his ability to shed blockers.
The 22-year-old knows as well as anybody that his rookie season was a disappointment. It’s hard not to be when you’re the starter playing almost every snap to start the year and simply looking for scraps by season’s end. But he knows how important it is to the defense that he succeed, and he is determined to do so.
“I feel I’m going to be very important to this defense”, he said. He feels that the team didn’t play their defense last season, but that “if I perform the way I’m supposed to perform and everybody else performs the way they’re supposed to perform we’re going to have a great team”.
It’s encouraging to see him take ownership of his role and place on the defense, and in the defense as a whole. He should feel that the starting job is his, and that it’s his responsibility to push the unit to the next level. This is where we were last year, as he mentioned, but I suspect we’ll be in a different place come December.