The Pittsburgh Steelers have invested heavily in the linebacker position over the course of the previous three drafts, but on Sunday night, they were forced to make do with two of their three most recent first-round picks.
Head coach Mike Tomlin said yesterday that he expects both Jarvis Jones and Ryan Shazier to be able to return to the field for the Steelers’ next game, which is especially good news in the case of the latter, who has missed the previous four games with a shoulder injury that evidently turned out to be more serious than initial perception suggested.
While the Steelers do have depth at Shazier’s position—and Sean Spence and Vince Williams combined have generally filled in admirably in his absence—with the speedy sideline-to-sideline linebacker back into the fold, the defense can take another step closer to reaching its full potential, as there are some things only his skill set can accomplish.
Shazier was not simply an accomplished football player coming out of college in order to get himself picked up with the 15th overall pick in the draft in 2014, he is also a highly conditioned athlete, to use a Tomlinism, gifted with exceptional speed for a linebacker, perhaps the fastest straight-line sprinter at his position.
Between his first and second seasons, the former first-round draft selection has been able to combine that speed with a greater knowledge of the defense, and offensive tendencies, that have allowed him to play with his instincts taking over, which has had the consequence of showcasing his speed.
We saw on a number of occasions over the course of the first two games, as well as the preseason, that Shazier has the instinctual ability to shoot gaps and blow up plays in the backfield, which a combination of his speed and diagnostics prevent his peers from duplicating.
We also saw in the last game what that kind of consistent production of negative plays can do to an offense, as that is exactly what the Cardinals were able to do to the Steelers offense until somewhere around midway in the third quarter.
Le’Veon Bell ran for a total of 88 yards, but the Steelers also lost 17 yards combined on seven different plays in which Arizona stopped them for a loss. Negative plays such as these have the potential to stall drives, which is a necessity for a defense such as the Steelers, which relies on opportunism rather than dominance.
Spence and Williams have gradually improved roughly with each passing game as they have filled in for Shazier over the course of the past month, but make no mistake that this will not be a repeat of last season, where the young player must earn back his start, and his playing time.
When Shazier returns, which seems to be for the next game against the Chiefs, he will be on the field and he will be logging most of the snaps, because Tomlin knows what special type of talent he is capable of producing.