Shazier Injury, Dirty Hits Cast Dark Shadow over Steelers' MNF Win vs. Bengals

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystDecember 5, 2017

CINCINNATI, OH - DECEMBER 04:  Ryan Shazier #50 of the Pittsburgh Steelers reacts as he is carted off the field after a injury against the Cincinnati Bengals during the first half at Paul Brown Stadium on December 4, 2017 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images)
John Grieshop/Getty Images

There are jarring, potentially season-altering injuries in the NFL on a near-weekly basis—especially in 2017, with the ever-expanding list of Pro Bowl-caliber players on injured reserve.

But what happened Monday night to Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier went beyond the scoreboard, the playoff race and even the sport in a game that still had over three quarters remaining.

What happened to Shazier was a football injury that went beyond football.

Early in the first quarter of a game the Steelers won 23-20 against the Cincinnati Bengals, Shazier lunged forward to make a tackle after Andy Dalton completed a checkdown pass to wide receiver Josh Malone. Shazier was well-positioned to defend a dump-off, but as Malone secured the ball and turned, Shazier's momentum carried him into his target's hip head-first.

Shazier's head recoiled as he fell to the ground, with his body going limp. He moved his arms, and his first instinct was to grab his back.

He rolled over and then began rapidly flexing his right hand. Everything was working normally there, too. But his legs didn't move at any point—not when he was on the ground, and not when the medical crew loaded Shazier onto a backboard to cart him off the field.

The first reports didn't offer much, with NFL Network's Ian Rapoport relaying that Shazier left the stadium in an ambulance.

As the game wore on, there was concern and urgency directed toward any update on Shazier's condition, and the outcome of a late-season game with playoff implications became an afterthought. But no such update came, despite the best efforts of NFL Network's Aditi Kinkhabwala, who "begged" Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert for anything—anything at all.

Then, when the game entered the fourth quarter, Kinkhabwala speculated that Shazier was likely still undergoing tests and that the hospital wasn't ready to release information publicly:

Hope and encouraging news didn't trickle down until much later.

Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that multiple players called Shazier's injury a spinal contusion. As Bouchette also noted, the injury could be similar to the one suffered by former Steelers quarterback Tommy Maddox in 2002. He missed two games.

There's a thick book of football cliches, and the most common deal with the reality of a vicious, violent game. We often hear coaches, players and fans talk about the "next man up" attitude that's ingrained in the sport.

There is nothing dark or sinister intended by those words, which teams live by and repeat throughout a season. They outline a central, motivating principle: that no one man defines a team and that the goal of driving toward a championship remains in place regardless of who just limped off.

On a deeper level, however, the focus on the next fresh body is a mental wall. It helps players to stay locked in without letting the brutal, perhaps life-changing nature of football injuries creep into their minds.

But there's only so much of the human element that can be removed. That was clear when fellow Steelers linebacker Vince Williams was seen crying on the sideline. And it was clear when the Steelers seemed listless for much of the first half. They trailed 17-0 late in the half, the first time Pittsburgh had faced a deficit of 15-plus points against the Bengals since 1999.

The Steelers still prevailed, climbing from that deep hole by outscoring the Bengals 20-3 in the second half. But in the process, they seemed to forget the pain they felt while their teammate was carted off.

Or at least wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster seemed to forget. He created a poster for what the NFL—a league trying to shed a barbaric image with an emphasis on safety—wants to avoid.

Like the rest of his teammates, Smith-Schuster surely struggled to stay focused on a football game while he was concerned about the well-being of a teammate. But it was hard to tell as he stood over Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict, proud of an illegal hit that sent Burfict off in a cart.

Smith-Schuster was flagged for taunting and unnecessary roughness after he turned his body into a missile and led with his head on a crackback block. He instantly became a staple of any offseason videos that will be shown by the league to illustrate what needs to be erased from the game forever.

The Steelers' game-tying drive in the fourth quarter can be added to that tape, too. It was a drive with three personal fouls, including a flag on Bengals safety George Iloka, who launched himself head-first at Antonio Brown as the Steelers wide receiver hauled in a six-yard touchdown catch.

Brown rose to his feet and was later able to celebrate the Steelers' seventh straight win. And though the hit on Burfict was scary, ESPN's Lisa Salters reported during the game that he was up and moving but out of the contest with a head injury.

Shazier's injury status, however, loomed large after the game, even with the hint of optimism via Bouchette. From a football perspective, Shazier is the athletically gifted soul of a Steelers defense that came into Week 13 ranked fourth in points allowed, with 17.5 per game.

Shazier has nearly unmatched instincts and sideline-to-sideline speed, a package that led to 87 tackles, 10 passes defensed and three interceptions over just 11 games in 2017. An extended absence by Shazier would put a serious dent in the Steelers' championship aspirations, starting with their ability to gain home-field advantage as they eye a Week 15 heavyweight showdown against the New England Patriots.

But those football stakes were trumped by the human impact Monday.

Football is a brutal sport played by massive men who collide at speeds that don't seem physically possible. Usually, the carnage of those crashes is cleaned up quickly, with all involved getting up and returning to their respective huddles to see what further violence awaits.

When that doesn't happen, a sobering feeling sets in as we're reminded of the real-life consequences NFL players face. That existence would be terrifying for anyone else, but they embrace it on every snap—and every hit.

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