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The Optimist’s Take: Ryan Shazier Has It Covered

The Pittsburgh Steelers have, by and large, been on an upward swing over the course of the past two and a half seasons after they missed the playoffs for two straight seasons, and failed to win a postseason game in four straight years.

Last season saw them gain that elusive playoff victory, though they came up short with about three minutes left in the Divisional round a week later. Their offense took off, and their defense improved, showing playmaking ability and opportunism.

But there are still a lot of unanswered questions facing the team as we crack into free agency territory. As an exercise, we like to take a stab at some of those questions, presenting arguments for the pros and cons of each side of the coin. This is the optimist’s take on the following question.

Question: Will inside linebacker Ryan Shazier emerge as the mainstay coverage linebacker in 2016?

One of the things that the Steelers were obviously enamored with when they elected to draft Ryan Shazier with the 15th overall selection in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft was his highly impressive speed for the position. It’s an element of the game for the position that is only becoming increasingly more prominent.

Naturally, one of the elements of the game that lends itself well toward linebackers with speed, one would assume, is the ability to excel in coverage against running backs and tight ends. But that is not an area of Shazier’s game that has been a strength by any means through most of the course of his first two professional seasons.

He had, in fact, actually struggled a good bit at times in that area, particularly in his rookie season, belying the nifty interception that he made down the field in coverage on a tight end in his first preseason game. But I believe things began to take a turn for the better later in the year.

That became particularly obvious in the game against the Broncos in the regular season, during which Shazier recorded his first career interception. But in the same game, he also recorded three pass defenses, and also had a pass defensed in the prior week.

Statistical data is only one point to look at, of course, but I believe reviewing the tape shows that he was improving in terms of being a coverage linebacker as the season progressed, and as he was being given a bigger and bigger role—with Lawrence Timmons receiving less of one, as evidenced by him being taken off the field in the quarters package.

This seems to be the direction the offense is heading, with Shazier assuming the mantle at the inside linebacker position and becoming the player that Timmons once was—plus play-calling responsibilities—which is a job that entails adeptness at covering, for example, running backs leaking out of the backfield.

Shazier’s late-season progress shows promise that he will be able to succeed in this role. The fact that he has the speed to make up for some mistakes certainly helps as well. It also happens to be just what the Steelers need, so it is important that he continues to build on where he left off in that aspect of his game at the end of last season.

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