When Ryan Shazier played the 49ers in the second week of the season, he had a monster game, finishing with 15 tackles, a sack, and a forced fumble, and it seemed as though he was taking off, reaching the potential that the Pittsburgh Steelers saw in him when they made him their first-round draft pick in 2014.
But he suffered a shoulder injury in that game and missed the next four, and it took him some time and a lot of trial and error before he looked to be playing his way back into form, recording 20 tackles in total over the course of the last two games of the season, along with a half-sack, and he recorded his first interception the game before.
Last night, in the Steelers’ Wildcard opener against the Bengals, Shazier seemed to be everywhere, both early and late, having himself a big game, and perhaps the second-best game of his career after that Week Two stomping of San Francisco.
The inside linebacker finished the game with 13 tackles, including nine solo, deflecting two or three passes and nearly intercepting one. He put a crushing his on Giovani Bernard on a late third-quarter third-and-nine play that produced a fumble that he himself recovered.
Six out of eight of Shazier’s tackles were classified as run stops, failing to gain the expected successful yardage on the play based on down and distance.
The Bengals’ penultimate offensive play of the game, other than a desperation heave with six seconds left, was a six-yard run as they tried to run out the clock, but Shazier ripped the ball out, forcing his second fumble of the game, which the Steelers recovered, going on to score the winning field goal.
After Pittsburgh drove down the field to score, Shazier, fittingly, was the one to bat down the final pass. He smartly swatted the ball directly downward, making sure that it hit the ground as fast as possible to secure the game, rather than trying to intercept the pass.
One of the areas of the game in which he has struggled through most of his young career has been in coverage, but he has been a much better player in that department over the closing stretch of the regular season, and he continued to look improved in coverage last night, nearly single-handedly forcing a four-and-out on the drive in which the Bengals ultimately took the lead.
It was a very positive development that Shazier, and other young players on defense, stepped up their game to match the intensity of the playoffs, which will hopefully bode well for the Steelers as they look to advance to the AFC Championship game for the first time since 2010.
While they ultimately gave up the lead late, they still limited a potent offense to 16 points, and produced a number of three-and-out drives throughout the game, and Shazier was undoubtedly one of the key figures in that effort, exploiting his speed to keep the Bengals’ offense honest.