Though it was a common occurrence last season, the Pittsburgh Steelers are heading into their third game of the season without the services of second-year inside linebacker Ryan Shazier, who has had a big impact on the performance of the defense through the first two games of the season.
The former first-round draft choice injured his shoulder making a tackle late in the Steelers’ victory over the 49ers last week and was unable to finish the game. fourth-year linebacker Sean Spence substituted in for him, and will do so today as well.
As a rookie last season, Shazier suffered three different injuries that caused him to miss time, including one during the preseason. In total, he missed seven regular season games, and he lost his starting job after that final injury, with his playing time becoming highly curtailed.
Coming off the best game of his young pro career, during which he registered 15 tackles, including three for a loss, a sack, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery, this is an inopportune time for the defense to be without Shazier, who sat out all three days of practice this past week leading up to the next game.
Last season, when Shazier was down, they replaced him with a platoon, consisting of Spence playing in the base defense and Vince Williams logging time when the Steelers shifted over to their nickel package, with the philosophy that the bigger linebacker will help neutralize the disadvantage of downsizing in sub-package play.
Whether or not that remains the plan this season remains to be seen—Williams has only seen time on defense at the goal line this season thus far—but it seems likely, based on the comments coming out of the team from practice, as the third-year linebacker seemed confident that he would play.
While both Spence and Williams are fine players, neither possess the game-changing abilities that Shazier and his elite speed have flashed in his second year. The young starter has looked like the best player on defense thus far, which is exactly what they were hoping to see sliding into this season.
It may also be worth pointing out that fellow starting inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons has still yet to get up to top gear this season after battling a turf toe injury through much of training camp and the preseason.
While Timmons has had a tendency to get off to a slow start during the early stretches of the regular season, his struggles to get off of blocks and his missed tackles have been an impediment to the defense taking a step forward in its growth, and it’s difficult to say how much of that is due to his injury and what he might be playing through.
Regardless of the cause, however, it’s just another layer to be considered when discussing the impact of losing Shazier may have on the defense during this game, and potentially any other games he may miss, which has certainly been more than he surely expected when he first entered the league.