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2017 South Side Questions: How Does Defense Adjust?

The journey toward the Super Bowl is now well under way with the Pittsburgh Steelers back practicing at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, still informally referred to as the ‘South Side’ facility. With the regular season standing in their way on the path to a Lombardi, there will be questions for them to answer along the way.

We have asked and answered a lot of questions during the preseason and through training camp, but much of the answer-seeking ends in the regular season, and teams simply have to make do with what they have available to them. Still, there will always be questions for us.

You can rest assured that we have the questions, and we will be monitoring the developments in the regular season and beyond as they develop, looking for the answers as we evaluate the makeup of the Steelers on their way back to the Super Bowl, after reaching the AFC Championship game last season for the first time in more than half a decade.

Question: How could the Steelers adjust on the defensive side of the ball in the absence of inside linebacker Ryan Shazier?

I want to start off by noting that if you’re reading this at five in the morning when it goes up, or have not seen the rest of the site today, then you should be aware that I have an article up that talks about the human implications of Ryan Shazier’s injury from last night. I wanted to separate that from the football equation.

As you surely know, Shazier suffered some sort of back injury early in the game attempting a tackle. It appeared that he had no or very limited movement in his lower extremities before he was carted off the field after spending several minutes on the ground.

He was replaced by Tyler Matakevich, who was then replaced by L.J. Fort after he was injured as well. Matakevich made his way to the locker room following the shoulder injury, his jersey off. We really don’t know what the immediate, let alone long-term, future holds for the inside linebacker position at the moment.

Shazier was having the most successful season of his career on the field, and it is no coincidence that it was also his healthiest, up until last night. He and Cameron Heyward were the bedrock of the unit, and paired well with Vince Williams.

The only reserves at the position are more buck than mack contributors in Matakevich and Fort, which will really slow the Steelers’ overall footspeed over the middle. As I write this, Matakevich’s status is unclear, especially entering a short week against the Ravens.

If it’s Fort, then we know at least that he has been in the Steelers’ system for a number of years now, even if he has not played much. He has had some strong performances in the preseason, but that is about all we have to go on. He is their most athletic inside linebacker behind Shazier. No doubt we will see an increase in the dime defense and more William Gay.

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