Last week, Pittsburgh Steelers second-year inside linebacker Ryan Shazier authored arguably his strongest and most complete performance of his career, with the only rival being the Week Two game that also featured a sack.
But that game cannot stack up in terms of importance, this being the playoffs, and the Steelers’ first playoff win in years, at that. And Shazier delivered an excellent performance playing every snap and serving as the defense’s signal caller.
Unlike in previous performances, he showed well in all areas of the game, sticking his nose in the trenches, shooting gaps in run support, getting pressure on the quarterback, and playing sound in coverage. Typically, he has failings in one or more of these areas. That wasn’t the case last week.
And for the defense to be able to be effective, that likely needs to happen again. Perhaps he does not have to play at exactly the same level—at least not in terms of being a playmaker, forcing two fumbles and recovering one of them himself—but he needs to be able to consistently make an impact and use his sideline to sideline range to help shut down the Broncos’ offense.
Especially given that Peyton Manning will be under center, who certainly seems to have a more limited repertoire in terms of range and velocity, and thus will be looking to take more short and intermediate shots, Shazier will need to continue his ascending work in pass coverage, which had previously been a notable liability.
He will also have to take advantage of what might be fewer blitzing opportunities against a quarterback such as Manning, who gets the ball off quicker and is far better than average at picking up the blitz. He will need to be able to come in clean, and then take advantage of his unique speed to close and pressure a poor throw, if not get the sack.
And, of course, he will have to continue to be a difference maker against the run, as he was last week, identifying plays and weaving through traffic in order to make the run stop. His efforts will be crucial in putting Manning and the Broncos into unfavorable down and distance situations.
Because if he isn’t able to do all of these things, then the Steelers are going to have a hard time stopping them, period, and the offense is going to have a hard enough time scoring as it is, facing a replenished Denver secondary that is now playing on home turf, which is a far different situation than they faced in their match up during the regular season.
Of course it will not be all up to Shazier to singlehandedly be the difference and win the game. Cameron Heyward and the defensive line providing interior pressure and funneling the running game to the linebackers will be key. The coverage needs to be on point. And the offense needs to score points. But it certainly feels as though this is Shazier’s stage, and it’s time for him to step into the spotlight.