Linebacker Ryan Shazier was the life of a vibrant young defense before suffering a spinal injury in week 13 against the Cincinnati Bengals. It was expected that the Pittsburgh Steelers‘ defense would take a step down, but it wasn’t obvious until Sunday afternoon.
There are a number of reasons why the Steelers lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars 45-42 in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. The Steelers lost the turnover and time of possession battles, gave up 164 yards rushing, Ben Roethlisberger was sacked four times, and they flat out overlooked the Jaguars. Just to mention a few things.
There was one thing, however, that stood out more in this matchup than in any previous game, specifically since December 10th (the Steelers first full game without Shazier this season).
The absence of Shazier was evident in the Steelers season-ending loss. The Jags had success on quick screens and power runs up the middle with running back Leonard Fournette. A 57% third down completion percentage and passes to nine different receivers are other statistics worth noting when discussing Shazier’s absence.
Shazier is a dominant football player. He covers ground unlike any linebacker in the National Football League, possesses elite instincts and was the Steelers most important player on defense prior to his injury. There is no doubt that the Steelers missed him against the Jaguars on Sunday.
Even with Fournette out for a period in the 2nd quarter, T.J. Yeldon had 2 carries for 10 yards. The defensive line had a very tough time penetrating into the backfield and there was no Shazier to attack the line of scrimmage and blow up run plays. The Jags spread out their wide receivers which left stopping the run to the line and linebackers. Although the line didn’t help the cause, the linebackers played poorly in the second tier. Shazier has always been a reliable, run stuffing work horse. Not having Shazier there to anticipate plays and cause havoc near and around the line proved to be a huge hole in the defense.
The Jaguars also had success in the passing game with quarterback Blake Bortles finding receivers across the middle of the field and in the flat. These are two areas of the field where Shazier constantly lurks and dominates. There was no Steelers linebacker who had the speed or instincts to blow up these plays and come up with big stops.
The Jaguars converting 8 of 14 third downs was partly the line’s fault for not generating pressure, but there were a number of times when Bortles found targets in the middle of the field. Vince Williams, Sean Spence, L.J. Fort and Anthony Chickillo were all not quick enough to stop the Jaguars’ offense on third down and make tackles in the open field.
Most importantly, Shazier was the general on the field before his injury. When the defense struggled, he found a way to made a big play. He was the playmaker and play caller of a young, but talented defensive group. There was no doubt that the Steelers were missing a leader on defense against the Jags. Cameron Heyward, who was basically non existent, and Williams (who missed a bit of the game while going through the concussion protocol) were far from difference makers. The Steelers’ defense struggled to contain the Jaguars mediocre offense because they allowed 4.7 yards per rush and constantly left the middle of the field open.
The Steelers did not deserve to win this football game. There were mistakes all over the place. But this is the first game since Shazier’s injury that really seemed as if Keith Butler‘s defense was missing an all out difference maker.