Barring something totally unforeseen, Pittsburgh Steelers rookie inside linebacker Ryan Shazier will start alongside Lawrence Timmons in the 2014 season opener against the Cleveland Browns. When and if that happens, he will be the first Steelers defensive rookie to accomplish that feat since Kendrell Bell last did way back in 2001.
Shazier, however, has a chance to do something that Bell couldn’t do during his rookie season that culminated with him winning the AP NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award and that’s stay on the field for all three downs.
Many of you may not remember the 2001 season, but Bell, who registered 9 sacks and 14 run tackles for losses during his rookie year, was mostly used as a two-down player. In obvious passing situations he came off the field as he was viewed as a liability in pass coverage. When you consider that the Steelers defense faced 146 third down situations in which the offense needed five or more yards to go for a first down, it’s probably safe to assume that Bell was only on the field for roughly 75-80% of all defensive plays in 2001.
Even though Bell only registered a 4.64 forty-yard dash time during the 2001 NFL Combine, he had good straight-line speed for a linebacker back then. Then-defensive coordinator Tim Lewis took advantage of that speed as Bell was usually moving forward toward the line of scrimmage. This included Bell blitzing quite a bit and you might be surprised to know that of the nine sacks he had in 2001, all nine of them came on either first or second down.
While Shazier will more than likely be used on early downs similar to the way that Bell was used during his rookie season, he’ll have to be able to drop into coverage some as the league is geared more towards exploiting inside linebackers in a 3-4 that can’t cover or drop. It’s much more of a passing league now than it was back then complete with tight ends and running backs that can function well as pass catchers.
While Bell was considered to be a player with good speed back in his playing days, Shazier’s speed is unheard of for today’s linebackers. His change of direction skills are also much better than that of Bell’s when he came out of college.
While Shazier has a good shot at playing more as a rookie than Bell did back in 2001, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he will put together the kind of season that the Georgia product did.
In addition to Bell’s nine sacks during his rookie season, his 14 run tackles for loss tied him with then-fellow Steelers inside linebacker Earl Holmes for the lead league in 2001. On top of that, Bell was also in on 16 other run tackles that resulted in a gain of two or less yards. By my count, 39 of the 82 total tackles, including sacks, that Bell was in on during his rookie season resulted in the offense gaining two yards or less.
So, does Shazier have a good shot at winning the 2014 AP NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award? Based on the playing time that he’s expected to receive, you have to like his chances. In fact, Sportsbook.ag has him currently listed at +800 to do just that. Dating back to 2000, a linebacker has won the award in all but three years.