Pittsburgh Steelers: Ryan Shazier Poised to Be a Star

Curt Popejoy@@nfldraftboardContributor IAugust 1, 2014

Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Ryan Shazier (50) during practice at NFL football training camp in Latrobe, Pa., on Monday, July 28, 2014 . (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

The fact is that the Pittsburgh Steelers don’t exactly provide their fans with excitement when it comes to first-round picks. Even in 2013, when the Steelers drafted linebacker Jarvis Jones, there was some trepidation.

Although Jones was an incredibly productive player in college, his ability to adapt to the Pittsburgh defense was a concern. And one year in, those concerns appear to be valid.

To further illustrate this, here are the first-round selections for the five drafts prior to 2014

Pittsburgh Steelers First-Round Draft Picks
2013Jarvis JonesLinebackerGeorgia
2012David DeCastroGuardStanford
2011Cameron HeywardDefensive EndOhio State
2010Maurkice PounceyCenterFlorida
2009Ziggy HoodDefensive EndMissouri

That’s not to say these are bad players. Quite the contrary. DeCastro and Pouncey form two parts of one of the best interior offensive lines in the country. Heyward came on strong the second half of 2013 and shows a ton of promise. Even Jones is far from a lost cause and has the potential for great things in the league.

Nevertheless, none of these are “wow” picks. They weren’t picks that caused a visceral reaction from fans at the thought of them on the field. The Steeler front office played it safe with these picks for the most part. They drafted players who were safe, productive players, but lacking in sizzle.

Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

The trend was bucked with the 2014 NFL draft. When the Steelers chose to spend their first-round pick on Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier, you knew that the Steelers were going big. Pittsburgh acknowledged that they have a physical unit, but it was lacking that dynamic element.

This hasn’t always been the case. In his prime, safety Troy Polamalu was one of the most explosive and disruptive forces in the NFL. However, as Polamalu reaches the twilight of his career, his bark is much more than his bite.

Shazier is the ideal type of player to take the mantle from Polamalu as that disruptive force. His game is tailor-made for the Steelers defense. Let’s take a closer look at why Shazier is going to be a rousing success and what early returns are on his performance.

The core of Shazier’s game is speed. However, that means something far more than just being able to run fast in a straight line. Shazier is able to diagnose plays quickly and react to them in a split second. Speed without purpose is pointless. Shazier utilizes his speed on the field so well because he is able to break a play down in a hurry, making him seem even faster on the field.

This speed also helps in dealing with what was his greatest shortcoming in college. His lack of functional strength at the point of attack. In some cases, Shazier will actually give up ground to disengage from a blocker, and then close so quickly, it’s like he was moving forward the whole time.

When Shazier gets to the football, he’s not just a hitter. He does a very good job for a player with his speed of getting square to the player, driving through the football and wrapping up.

You can also see from the previous video that Ohio State was not shy about dropping Shazier into coverage. His instincts are solid and in zones shows impressive change of direction and break on the football. 

This is a great example of Shazier keeping his head up, breaking down the play and closing in a hurry to stop the running back. This sort of purposeful speed and smarts helps with poor angles and a lack of functional strength. In many cases, Shazier’s speed eliminates the need to engage a blocker at all.

One of the most interesting things about Shazier coming to the Steelers is that he is switching positions. Coming from Ohio State as a 4-3 outside linebacker means there is to be some transition to the inside in a 3-4. However, when you see the video below, be aware of how many times Shazier is coming up the middle, providing pressure.

You can see from these videos that Shazier can attack the offense from anywhere on the field. You can bet that defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is drooling at the prospect of moving Shazier all over the formation and cutting him loose.

This college stuff is all well and good, but the Ohio State star is in the big leagues now, and maybe those criticisms of his game will show up and all this hype is for nothing. No, he’s been amazing so far. Reports out of training camp have been glowing to say the least.

Here is a sampling of some of the tweets by those media members who have been in attendance at the Steelers’ training camp so far. 

Mike Prisuta of 102.5 WDVE: 

Practice observation: LB Shazier impressive in 'Backs-on-'Backers. RB Blount disappointing. Arrow also up for LBs Williams, Spence, Moats.

— Mike Prisuta (@DVEMike) July 28, 2014

Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

My radio partner Tunch Ilkin said Ryan Shazier's performance in RB vs LB drill was one of most remarkable he's seen.

— Gerry Dulac (@gerrydulac) July 29, 2014 

Alex Kozora of steelersdepot.com:

Steelers using Shazier like a vet. Moving him around a lot. Expect him to fly off the right edge with 95 in the "B" gap a lot in '14.

— Alex Kozora (@Alex_Kozora) August 1, 2014

Bob Labriola of steelers.com: 

Ryan Shazier combines a bull rush with a swim move during backs-on-backers. Not too many LBs can pull that off.

— Bob Labriola (@BobLabriola) July 28, 2014

Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

My lord the collision Blount and Shazier. Blount staggered him. Shazier whipped him twice before.

— Mark Kaboly (@MarkKaboly_Trib) July 28, 2014

Do I need to go on? Critics of Shazier need to accept that this is a special player. For all the great inside linebackers this team has had in the last 20 years, there might not be one who will have a greater career than Shazier.

Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

The Steelers had to play without one inside linebacker for much of the 2013 season, because none of them on the roster had the athleticism to play full time. Shazier is changing the face of the Steelers inside linebacker, and he could become a household name in the near future.

What is Pittsburgh going to do with Shazier this year? They will likely plug him at the weak inside linebacker spot, also called the mack linebacker. On run downs he will patrol the middle, working to the sideline with his speed and filling behind that massive defensive front.

The more interesting part will be in sub packages. There are going to be times when Shazier stays inside and drops into coverage. Other times Pittsburgh is going to blitz straight through the B gap. And other times, look for Shazier to roll to the outside and use that explosion to rush off the edge. 

No matter where Pittsburgh has Shazier in 2014, you can bet he's going to be making plays.


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