Steelers All-22: Utilizing Ryan Shazier’s Strengths, Minimizing Weaknesses

Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2014 first round draftee Ryan Shazier had high expectations heading into last season, but injuries and rookie mistakes marred his initial NFL campaign. Shazier himself has referred to the past year as “kinda disappointing”, but an examination of his tape tells a more detailed story.

Today we’ll review Shazier’s Week 1 performance last year against the Cleveland Browns, his first true NFL game action. Because Shazier only went over 40 defensive snaps in a game twice during his rookie campaign (Weeks 1 and 2), performances from which to draw a truly comprehensive view of the young linebacker were few and far between.

One of the biggest things Shazier struggled with during his first NFL season was getting off of blocks. This came as no surprise to those who had studied Shazier in college, as stacking-and-shedding was one of his biggest weaknesses due to a slighter frame and questionable power at the point of attack. It isn’t that Shazier doesn’t work hard to get off blocks, it is that he simply isn’t built for it.

When Shazier was initially drafted, my biggest concern about him manning an inside linebacker position in the Steelers 3-4 defense is that playing on the interior would neutralize his athleticism and ability to excel in space, perhaps his greatest strength. Shazier is athletic and instinctive enough to make plays from any linebacker position, but my points were focused on putting him in the best possible spot to maximize his skill set.

Take this snap early in the first quarter against Cleveland for example. Shazier anticipates the play very well, but gets caught by offensive tackle Joe Thomas trying to pursue the runner to the boundary.

Obviously Thomas is a tall task for any rookie to take on one-on-one in their first NFL game, but Shazier’s struggles to shed the blocker are still evident. The linebacker ends up 5-6 yards downfield courtesy of Thomas’ top-notch blocking.

In the second quarter Shazier reads the play quickly, but is cleared out entirely by Thomas once again.

There are some technique issues that can be improved on to maintain inside leverage, but the lack of power Shazier displays at the point of attack is concerning for a middle linebacker who will be asked to sift through trash and make stops quite often.

Most of Shazier’s issues with working through blockers come from his frame, lack of ideal length, and strength concerns, but he also needs to grow more physical when taking on opposing lineman.

Because of Shazier’s hesitancy to initiate contact with the Cleveland blocker on this play, he ends up several yards downfield before making the stop. Shazier literally veers away from the blocker with an extremely deep pursuit angle, instead of aggressively working his way upfield through contact to stymie the running back’s progress. This won’t fly in the NFL, as avoiding blockers will ultimately lead to elimination from many plays. Shazier has to learn how to take on blockers and hold his own, rather than dance around or away from them in hopes of making a play further down the field.

That isn’t to say Shazier isn’t aggressive as a player, but the process of being pushed around when battling blockers head-to-head takes its toll on the body and on the mind. Shazier’s strengths as an aggressive playmaker in space have been neutralized by the constant rigor of battling through blockers to make an impact.

So how does Shazier combat these weaknesses and learn to live up to his first round billing in the Steelers defense? Is it possible for him to become a stellar force at inside linebacker, or is he simply a bad fit in Pittsburgh’s scheme?

The answer is a little bit of both in my opinion. Shazier won’t reach his maximum effectiveness in his current role, but his athleticism, football IQ, and consistent motor are more than enough to allow the Ohio State linebacker to make plays regardless of his issues with blockers.

If Shazier is to become a true force at inside linebacker, he must learn to win consistently with his blazing linear quickness and football instincts. The play below is a great example of how Shazier adapted in the second half against Cleveland and became more aggressive with his reads and attacks.

Attacks downhill with blazing quickness to blow up West in the backfield with a ferocious collision. This is how Shazier can win at his current position, by not sitting and waiting for blockers to come to him, but by beating them to the ball before linemen can make contact.

Shazier’s gifts are his unnatural foot quickness and explosiveness for a linebacker. When he can hone his instincts and utilize those tools, the results can be devastating

Does this open the linebacker up for some big runs into his area if he shoots the wrong gap, or is slow to recognize a play’s development? Absolutely, being aggressive comes at a cost sometimes. Because of that Shazier may always bring some boom-or-bust potential from an inside linebacker position, as his penetrating style will result in some big stops in the backfield and some outright whiffs until he learns to read plays and blocking schemes better.

In the play below Shazier takes too sharp an angle to the ball carrier and arrives late, resulting in a big gain into his vacated space.

But learning pursuit angles, gap control, reading plays, etc., all can come with experience. As Shazier learns when and where to attacks offenses with his abilities, he’ll finally be in an ideal position to utilize a talented skill set and become an impact run stopper for the Steelers this season.

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