The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Ryan Shazier in large part because they were enamored with his speed, envisioning a sideline-to-sideline playmaking Mack linebacker that would start day one. We have seen glimpses of that over the course of his career, but we have yet to see the full picture revealed.
No doubt a series of injuries have been an obstacle in his development, but the most disappointing aspect of his game had been in coverage. He made a splash in his preseason debut with a nice interception, but for most of his brief career, he has more often been a liability than an asset in this department.
While it would be foolish to read too much into a couple of plays, however, it was a welcome sign to see the second-year linebacker get his hands on a couple of passes on Sunday against Brock Osweiler and the Broncos, the second resulting in his first career interception.
Both plays were key in the Steelers’ second-half comeback, in which the defense shut down Denver after giving up 27 points in the first half. After opening the third quarter with a first down, the Broncos were hit with a holding penalty.
Following an incomplete pass, it was second and 20, and yardage was necessary on the down in order to make it a manageable play on third and likely long. The Broncos emptied the backfield, with Shazier at the line covering running back C.J. Anderson. He initially gave the back the inside, but was able to read the quarterback, breaking on the ball and swatting the pass down, setting of a third and 20.
While we were seeing positive signs in one area, however, we also got a reminder of another area in need of improvement, which is his tackling efficiency. He is amply capable of racking up the tackles in a game, but he often overruns plays by not being in control, and we saw that a couple of times during the game.
One instance came early in the fourth quarter, with the inside linebackers dropping into shallow zones. As Vernon Davis tucked in right between the two defenders, Shazier broke on the receiver, but he could not wrap up.
Later, on Denver’s next offensive series, he was perfectly in position to make a tackle on the running back after a check down pass that should have gone for no gain, but he overran the play and took himself out of it. Really, seeing where he was when he diagnosed the play, there is no good reason for not making the tackle.
Of course, he had the opportunity to finish out his day with a highlight, his first career interception. As Osweiler was forced to scramble, Shazier tracked him across the field, and eventually was able to make a jump in front of a squatting receiver.
It was a key moment in the game, setting up the Steelers in their own half of the field with the chance to take the lead, which is exactly what they did, after the offense was forced to punt the prior two possessions. Shazier is clearly still a work in progress, but at least we know there’s a lot to work with.