The absence of second-year inside linebacker Ryan Shazier has been felt over the course of the last two games as he sits out with a shoulder injury, for which he was reportedly back in a sling yesterday after returning to practice.
It’s a topic that we have touched on a couple of times over the past two weeks, which admittedly is probably influenced by the strong last impression that he gave against the 49ers, during which he registered 15 tackles, three for a loss, a sack, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery.
Evidently one of the things that enabled Shazier to become such an impact player for the Pittsburgh Steelers defense was, according to defensive coordinator Keith Butler, his penchant for, a time or two, improvising rather than running the play as called when he saw an opportunity to make a play.
That is not to say that Shazier is becoming to this defense what Troy Polamalu was for about a decade. Polamalu proved to be a generational talent, while Shazier is just trying to stay on the field for now. And the assignments for an inside linebacker vary wildly in comparison to a strong safety.
No, according to Butler, it’s not a feature of his game, nor is it a defect. The first-time coordinator told Steelers.com yesterday that, while “nobody let him” improvise” on a play, “you don’t want to coach him out of making plays” either.
Butler made clear to stress that Shazier far more often than not ran “within the construct of the defense”, and that these improvisational opportunities only came around a couple of times, and there is no evidence on tape that I see to dispute that.
But the difference between 2015 and 2014 is that, this year, at least through the first two games, when Shazier has gone outside of the construct of the defense, he made the play, whereas in his rookie season he failed to do so, and that no doubt influenced his decreased playing time after returning from his second injury.
While Butler certainly would not want to be undermined by his defense, with his defenders speaking publicly about being able to make plays because they chose to deviate from the scheme that he laid out, he is not in opposition to his players taking the initiative under the appropriate circumstances.
The only request that he makes of his players when doing so is that they make the play, and Shazier was doing just that prior to his injury. Up to that point, he was certainly looking like the defensive piece that was missing—or at least one of the pieces.
When he returns, whether that is on Monday night or at a later date, he should be bringing back his exceptional sideline-to-sideline speed and rapid diagnosis to a defense that has been lacking that over the past two weeks. When he combines those two traits, he creates opportunities for himself to make plays, often for a loss, that others on the team simply cannot create for themselves.