Rookie LB Ryan Shazier Adds New Element to Aging Pittsburgh Steelers Defense

Andrea Hangst@FBALL_AndreaFeatured Columnist IVAugust 16, 2014

USA Today

It wasn't long after the Pittsburgh Steelers selected inside linebacker Ryan Shazier with the 15th overall pick of the 2014 NFL draft that the "S-word" was being thrown around: Starter.

Partly because of need and partly because of Shazier's talent, much was immediately expected of him. This was true, despite the Steelers having a long history of rookie defenders sitting out their first season in order to learn coordinator Dick LeBeau's complicated scheme.

However, based on the first look at Shazier in a live game, it appears that he's better prepared than Steelers defensive rookies who preceded him and on a fast track to start alongside Lawrence Timmons. He's already listed as a starter on Pittsburgh's depth chart.

To be a successful inside linebacker in LeBeau's system, multidimensionality is a must. It's not just about occupying offensive linemen up the middle—it's about pressuring quarterbacks and blitzing from the interior, stopping the run and working in coverage. Think of a linebacker version of safety Troy Polamalu, in an ideal world.

The Steelers might have found themselves in that ideal world with Shazier, who made his preseason debut on Saturday night against the Buffalo Bills. He missed the first preseason game while nursing a knee bruise, but it was hard to see any first-year jitters from Shazier, who started and played the full first half.

Shazier had the Steelers' second tackle of the game, on Bills running back Fred Jackson after a five-yard passing gain. He added three more tackles on the drive, which ended with a Buffalo field goal. Shazier also notched an interception which ended the Bills' second drive. 

He also spent time on special teams, earning two tackles there. He had eight tackles and an interception by the end of the first quarter.

In total, Shazier had a dominant first half, with 11 total tackles, a pass breakup and an interception. Nine of his tackles were on defense, while two came on special teams. 

This is a performance the Steelers hoped to see. Shazier was drafted to fill an immediate and longer-term need—the former, to get faster on defense and the latter, to get younger. Shazier certainly has speed—he ran a 4.36-second 40-yard dash at his Ohio State pro day. And he's young, at just 21 years old.

The Steelers defense notoriously has been considered old during the team's last two seasons, both which ended with 8-8 records. However, they have committed to youth in recent drafts.

Three of their other 2014 defensive draft picks—Stephon Tuitt, Jordan Zumwalt and Daniel McCullers—are either 22 or 21 years old. They have two 23-year old safeties in Shamarko Thomas and Robert Golden. They have two other promising inside linebackers, Sean Spence and Vince Williams, who are both 24. Last year's first-round draft pick, linebacker Jarvis Jones, is 24.

But Shazier would be the youngest starter by far should his spot on the depth chart go unchanged between now and September (and should Tuitt also not secure a starting job). And what impresses the most is that he would have earned it, it would have not simply been handed to him because of the round in which he was drafted. That's not how the Steelers operate on defense.

Ryan Shazier's Ohio State Stats

One huge area in which Shazier's speed will make an impact is in pass coverage. Between Cortez Allen, William Gay, Mike Mitchell and Ike Taylor, there's not a lot of explosive speed in the secondary. Only the 33-year old Troy Polamalu appears to have the closing speed necessary to play coverage against the NFL's faster wideouts and tight ends.

Shazier was spotted in the defensive backfield on a number of Buffalo's passing plays on Saturday night. That he was asked to do it—and was successful at it—is a good sign Shazier will give the secondary a boost this season as well as the front seven.

This versatility shone brightly in his tenure at Ohio State. He had 317 combined tackles, 45.5 tackles for a loss, an interception returned for a touchdown, 15 sacks and 16 passes defensed over three seasons.

It's what caught LeBeau's eye, with the coordinator saying earlier in August, per Tom Reed of the Northeast Ohio Media Group:

He was usually the prime hitter or one of the assisted hitters on almost any running play. I found out why in working with him day to day. He's tremendously quick and he's got as much speed as any linebacker I have seen. Those were the assets we saw and I think they are even stronger than what we identified.

It also doesn't hurt that Ohio State ran a similar defense to LeBeau's, with LeBeau and Pittsburgh's coaching staff consulting with their coaches and teaching them their system. That adds weight to LeBeau's praise of Shazier as well as makes it easier for Shazier to be a starter in his rookie year.

Yes, it's just the preseason, but that doesn't diminish just how impressive Shazier looked in his summertime debut. Against the Bills' first-team offense, he was a force, making impact after impact on Bills drive after Bills drive.

If this is just the tip of the iceberg for Shazier's rookie season, then the Steelers have a star on their hands. It couldn't have come at a better time for the team.