The Pittsburgh Steelers have not at any point hedged in stating that they want Ryan Shazier to be their every-down starting inside linebacker. He was immediately handed the starting job as a rookie and was rarely rotated out until he got injured.
After his second mid-season injury, with the two combined forcing him to miss eight games of defensive play (his first game back he only played on special teams), he had lost his starting job, but Shazier was right back in the starting lineup, logging nearly every snap again—until he got injured again.
After returning from a four-game absence, with Sean Spence and Vince Williams rotating in replacing him during that time, Shazier was back, logging all but the four snaps Spence played against Kansas City. He played every snap against the Bengals, and sat out just six against the Raiders.
So why, then, did he only play 50 of 69 snaps against the Browns? Well, he did have to come off the field for two snaps midway through the fourth quarter after losing a shoe. But that does not account for the significant drop in snaps percentage-wise.
In all, Spence and Williams combined to play 20 snaps—Shazier and Williams shared a field for one snap in the goal line defense—with the former first-round pick sidelined for non-shoe-related reasons on 17 snaps.
Spence was his replacement for 12 of those snaps, and Williams took over the other five, playing eight snaps in total. The latter saw the last five snaps of the first half, spanning three separate drives, two of which consisted of one play, the other a three-and-out.
Shazier’s last play before that came on third down on a blitz, taking out the running back to allow Timmons to rush in for the sack, and there was no sign of him being injured in any way on the play, so it appears that the coaches desired for Williams to log those snaps at the end of the half.
As for Spence, he rotated in fairly early, who along with Bud Dupree and Anthony Chickillo, played all of the Browns’ second full drive of 10 snaps. The fourth-year veteran made multiple tackles on the drive, including three in a row, one for a loss of seven yards.
He didn’t check back in until late, early in the fourth quarter after a turnover inside Steelers territory. He logged two snaps, blitzing both times, but the Browns scored on the second play, beating the safety over the top. Spence reportedly suffered a hamstring injury at some point during the game, possibly on the ensuing kickoff, as it looks like he is the one that got steamrolled trying to throw a block.
In Shazier’s first three games back, Spence and Williams combined to play 14 snaps, with Williams’ four snaps coming at the goal line with Shazier also on the field. Spence logged 10 snaps in substitution for Shazier, just over three snaps per game.
Did the coaching staff become less and less sold on Shazier staying in for every snap as the gamed ticked by? Did they just want to give a bit more playing time to Spence and Williams, despite the fact that Lawrence Timmons continues to play every snap? One can’t be certain, but I will certainly be watching to see how the snaps are divvied up after the bye week.