The Steelers are in a strange growth period with their defense.
The faces of the defense such as Brett Keisel, Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, as well as many others, are gone. James Harrison is last remaining member of a defense that defined the early-to-mid 2000’s. Fan-favorite linebackers such as James Farrior, Joey Porter, Larry Foote, and more recently Lawrence Timmons have all departed.
Out with the old, and in came an infusion of much-needed youth. With this youth infusion came the overhauling of the linebacking corps.
A New Generation
This overhaul really began with the 2013 NFL Draft. Jarvis Jones was taken with the 17th overall pick. Though Jones did not live up to his billing with the Steelers, the 2014 first-round pick began to show what the Steelers had in mind when retooling the defense. That pick was Ryan Shazier. Since then, outside linebackers Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt have also been added to the mix.
Now with this young trio, the linebackers have a new identity. One with speed and a newfound intensity that will look to carry the Steelers for years to come.
However, one of the first things that comes to mind when thinking of Shazier is his unfortunate injury history. It has been well-documented in his three year career. Shazier missed seven games in his rookie campaign, four games the following season, and three games last year.
Dependency, especially with big name players, is needed. So far, Shazier has had trouble being dependent in a group of linebackers that has seen its fair share of roster turnover recently and that are also in need of a new leader.
When on the field, Ryan Shazier is arguably the fastest and most disruptive defensive player. In 34 career games, Shazier has amassed 134 tackles, 7 sacks, 4 interceptions, and 5 forced fumbles.
Even the lesser-known statistics such as quarterback knockdowns and hurries also showcase Shazier’s athletic nature. Shazier accumulated 12 QB hurries last season, one shy of 13, which was held by James Harrison.
Any way you slice it, Shazier has game-breaking potential and has certainly shown flashes of it. If Shazier can play a full slate of games this season, the results may have drastic effects on the entire defense.
With Lawrence Timmons departing earlier this offseason, Shazier will most likely handle almost all play-calling duties for the defense. This stability is needed to ensure consistent and dominant defensive play. This young defense is virtually guaranteed to have more growing pains that come with inexperience. With Shazier on the field, that pain is somewhat alleviated because of experience and natural ability.
Ryan Shazier is the closest representation to an elite-level linebacker the Steelers have at the moment. Without him, players young and old may be put in situations that they cannot handle, which weakens the defense even more.
The injury factor is a wild card in any professional sport, but Shazier may be approaching the point where coaches may see more to gain than lose by releasing him. Only time can tell if this will be the case.