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Steelers Need Sophomore Leap From LB Ryan Shazier

When the Pittsburgh Steelers grabbed Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier with the 15th selection of the 2014 NFL Draft, it was clear that what they were seeking was an electrifying presence to add some much-needed spark to an aging, and by some considered “slow”, defense.

At his pro day, Shazier ran the 40 in 4.37 seconds. Some defensive backs don’t cover ground that quick. He lead the NFL combine with a vertical jump of 42 inches. For an athlete standing 6-foot-1 and 237 pounds, those numbers tell you just how explosive of a player Shazier can be. After claiming the starting Mack inside linebacker position in OTA’s, Shazier missed the first preseason game with a knee bruise, but his debut in the second week put everybody on notice. He posted nine tackles then made a highlight reel interception, using his blazing speed to return it 27 yards. Many times during the season, he showed off his world-class athleticism, displaying a nose for the football and hitting like a sledgehammer.

A variety of injuries, including a sprained knee and a high ankle sprain put a bit of a hamper on the luster of his promising rookie campaign, relegating him to a familiar place for a rookie in Dick LeBeau’s system-the sideline. The missed time on the field hurt Shazier’s learning curve, but at the same time it allowed him to diagnose everything from afar and take invaluable mental repetitions.

“It happens a whole lot slower in our film room than it does on the field, so it’s not only a matter of knowing, you have to rep it enough that it becomes second nature,” said newly-minted defensive coordinator Keith Butler this past season.

The strong play by inside linebackers Sean Spence, Vince Williams and Pro-Bowler Lawrence Timmons was another factor in keeping the prized rookie shelved, but Mike Tomlin thinks it could’ve been a blessing in disguise as far as the long-term goes. “It creates misery, short-term misery, but also an opportunity for big-time growth,” Tomlin said.

Some critics will point to Shazier’s weight, or being too small as one of the fulcrums with his injury-riddled rookie year, and they’ll also try to place the blame on his supposed “inability” to shed the larger NFL blockers. Butler, however, dismissed these flaws, and added that former defensive cog James Farrior played at around 225 pounds in the twilight of his career. Besides that point, a common Shazier comparison in the league is Tampa Bay Buccaneers All-Pro Lavonte David, who’s listed at 6-foot-1 and 233 pounds. He’s smaller than Shazier, but is known around the league as a heat-seeking missile and the heartbeat of the Tampa defense. His size has never once been questioned, and other than Luke Kuechly of the Carolina Panthers, he’s often regarded as one of the best linebackers in football.

With a full offseason under his belt, one can only expect Shazier to hit the field, not only stronger but more explosive come training camp in Latrobe.

“What you come to find out as a linebacker is you need the weight in the sense of the blockers you have to take on,” Butler said. “But if you understand how to take people on in terms of technique, you need the mobility.”

I’m pretty sure anyone reading this article has seen the incredible wheels that Shazier possesses, so it’ll be interesting to see over the next few months how he looks in OTA’s.

“I was learning on the go a lot, but when I sat and watched, I learned a lot from those guys and what they were doing,” Shazier said regarding his time off the field. “I got more knowledge of the playbook, and that is really going to help me.”

If he can put the puzzle pieces together, we may be looking at the greatest inside linebacker duo this side of San Francisco 49ers’ Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. Coupled with the questions regarding the outside ‘backer spots, the Steelers will need it.

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