Steelers: The infinite potential of Ryan Shazier

Jan 9, 2016; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals running back Giovani Bernard (25) runs the ball against Pittsburgh Steelers inside linebacker Ryan Shazier (50) during the third quarter in the AFC Wild Card playoff football game at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 9, 2016; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals running back Giovani Bernard (25) runs the ball against Pittsburgh Steelers inside linebacker Ryan Shazier (50) during the third quarter in the AFC Wild Card playoff football game at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports /

The Pittsburgh Steelers have found something special in the young linebacker Ryan Shazier. With seemingly infinite potential, Shazier could be a key player in rebuilding a frail Steelers defense.

The word frail has not been in the vocabulary of a Steelers fan when describing their defense for pretty much its entire history. Words like the Steel Curtain, Blitzburgh, and countless names of Hall of Famers that have left their mark on the franchise with six Lombardi trophies; these are the words Steelers fans are used to using.

Times have changed, and those days are seemingly over. The Steelers ranked 21st in total yards allowed this season, and 30th in the league in passing yards allowed. The defense simply isn’t living up to the steel standard.

It may be a little disconcerting watching the Steelers draft three consecutive linebackers while having one of the worst secondaries in the league. Pittsburgh’s always been about its linebackers, but it’s seemed that other position groups might need more attention, such as a safety to replace Polamalu, or some cornerbacks would be nice as well.

The first pick in that three year span was the underwhelming Jarvis Jones. Jones has shown some promise at times, but 3 years into his playing career, he’s been kind of a bust, and hasn’t really looked like a 1st round draft pick.

While this year, Pittsburgh drafted Bud Dupree, who had kind of a disappointing rookie season, but definitely showed some flashes of potential, it’s the line backer in the middle that should receive all the attention on this defense.

Ryan Shazier.

Shazier was selected with the 15th pick of the 2014 NFL draft. Not many people saw the selection coming, but no one could deny his speed, and unique ball skills. After running a 4.38 40 meter dash at the combine, he became the fastest linebacker since Brian Urlacher. Just to compare, he ran a slightly faster dash than running back Adrian Peterson. He’s also faster than both Brown, Bell, and Bryant.

His rookie season was a bust. After Defensive Player of the Year talks, and an amazing preseason, he spent most of his first season injured, or just really not contributing. He had 36 total tackles in his first year, no sacks, no interceptions, and it just seemed like another linebacker bust.

This year, he proved everyone wrong.

In Week 2 against the 49ers, Shazier showed the first glimpse of his capabilities. He showed off his speed, read plays beautifully, and consistently blew up plays with his absolutely insane burst. He finished that game with 15 tackles, and a sack.

The Steelers rush defense actually did pretty well this year, and while the defensive line definitely improved thanks to the leadership of Cameron Heyward and the development of Stephon Tuitt, almost every single time the opposing team tried to squeeze the ball up the middle, or around the edge, Shazier blew it all up.

With his speed, he can explode through the offensive line, and not even running backs can get away from him, and quarterbacks simply don’t stand a chance. Coupled with that is the punishing blow he lays on anything holding the pigskin, one of the biggest hitters in the league today.

In a decisive regular season matchup with the Broncos, Shazier made a clutch interception, the first of his NFL career, and an impressive one to say the least. Being a diving interception, he couldn’t make much of the play, but imagining him running down the field with the football, with his blazing speed, that sure would be fun to watch.

On the season, Shazier improved to 87 total tackles, 1 interception, 3.5 sacks, and 4 forced fumbles.

The most impressive performance of this year, and his career so far, was the wild card game against the Bengals. Shazier changed the game on multiple occasions, and started to spur the talks officially that he was the real deal.

Shazier not only finished with 13 tackles, but he forced two decisive fumbles. One was a hard hit on running back Giovanni Bernard that would’ve been a touchdown as well had the referees not blown the whistle.

The other was possibly the play of the game. With time running out, all Cincinnati needed to do was run out the clock. Jeremy Hill started picking up steam, and had already gained 5 yards and was rolling, needing a first down to seal the game. Ryan Shazier got hold of him, reached in, and ripped the football from Hill’s clutches, leading to Pittsburgh gaining possession, and marching down the field and eventually kicking the game winning field goal.

It was his heroics that sent Pittsburgh to the 2nd round. While they couldn’t stay alive in the playoffs any longer, beating the Bengals was all Pittsburgh needed to feel accomplish. Shazier handed the Steelers the crown to the AFC North, back to its rightful home.

While the defense is full of young, promising players, and the Steelers are prepared for a total youth revolution on the defense, Shazier could truly become a team leader, and one of the best players the Steelers have had on defense in a long time.

The combination of Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons could become a deadly duo in the years to come, and could eventually take the reigns as a leader of a defense that may have a promising future.

He’s the kind of player a team can build around, and maybe, just maybe, the word weak or frail won’t be used to describe a Pittsburgh Steelers defense for much longer.