The Pessimist’s Take: Ryan Shazier Has It Covered

The Pittsburgh Steelers have, by and large, been on an upward swing over the course of the past two and a half seasons after they missed the playoffs for two straight seasons, and failed to win a postseason game in four straight years.

Last season saw them gain that elusive playoff victory, though they came up short with about three minutes left in the Divisional round a week later. Their offense took off, and their defense improved, showing playmaking ability and opportunism.

But there are still a lot of unanswered questions facing the team as we crack into free agency territory. As an exercise, we like to take a stab at some of those questions, presenting arguments for the pros and cons of each side of the coin. This is the pessimist’s take on the following question.

Question: Will inside linebacker Ryan Shazier emerge as the mainstay coverage linebacker in 2016?

Perhaps the most underrated quality of James Farrior, an underrated player in his own right, was, at least through most of his tenure with the Steelers, his ability to play in coverage as an inside linebacker in obvious passing situations.

That was a role that gradually shifted to Lawrence Timmons over time, and Larry Foote played the part as well, but Farrior was the sort of underappreciated do-everything linebacker, who recorded 11 interceptions during his career and about five times as many passes defensed, including a phenomenal four-interception year in 2004, which helped him earn his first and only first-team All-Pro honor.

The Steelers should be so lucky if Ryan Shazier becomes more than half the player Farrior was at his peak, in spite of his obvious superior athleticism, particularly in terms of fantastic speed for the inside linebacker position.

But one area of his game that has not as yet been much of a strength is his work as a coverage linebacker. In fact, it was only toward the late stages of the 2015 season that it at least appeared that Shazier was making strides in that area, culminating in an interception against the Broncos.

But he also struggled trying to cover tight ends earlier in the season, and at times was fortunate to seemingly catch a player or two on an off day, which was the case in the first game against the Bengals facing Tyler Eifert.

Over the course of the full season, Shazier was typically striving for average when it came to his work in coverage, with only a late-season improvement perhaps reaching that level. Part of this also factors in the missed tackles that he has been responsible for in trying to tackle the catch.

It seems clear at this point that Timmons is no longer the team’s coverage linebacker, and that that task is being moved toward Shazier. We may even see the Steelers utilize more quarters or big nickel defensive looks instead. Shazier’s late-season improvement is not enough to say that he is clearly heading in the right direction due to the small sample size. More must be seen to make any sort of meaningful judgement, because his cumulative performance was not up to the task.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.

  • Steve Johnson

    It looks like Timmons s will have to take a hefty paycut if he is to remain with team beyond 2016. They are not going to pay an ILB 8M Dollars to play two downs. The 3-4? A dying Defense, it looks like they are going to play defense.

  • RickM

    I just think it’s a learning curve. The Big 10 had about a 2.5 to 1 rushing to passing ratio while he played and he just didn’t face sophisticated passing offenses. I think his coverage skills will continue to improve in 2016.

  • Boots

    Shazier has shown improvement in almost every aspect of his game as he’s gotten more experience, he hasn’t had the benefit of being a backup for three years like Timmons did. He’s going in to his third year and I would be willing to bet that he starts putting it all together this year, as his experience catches up to his athleticism.

  • Steel PAul

    He’s been on an upward curve. But comments about him being fantastic last year miss the lack of overall consistency. He had a few very strong games, with a couple standing out even further, but also long periods of time where you didn’t hear his name.

    I’m excited to see how he plays this year!

  • pittfan

    I think he’s gonna kill it. If he avoids injury were looking at a possible Pro Bowl player.

  • Matthew Marczi

    Yeah, that’s really it. He has shown a bit of everything (sometimes more than a bit in certain respects). Now it’s just a matter of doing all of it at once, and doing it all the time.

  • Matthew Marczi

    Well he’s not under contract after this season, so it won’t technically be a pay cut, but I’m sure, assuming he does get an extension this summer or a new contract this year, it will average less than $8 million. It might not be much less than that, though. Similar players like Derrick Johnson and David Harris signed deals older than Timmons whose values hover around the $7 million a season range. I’d prefer a deal in the Posluzny/Mauluga range of $5 million a year.

  • popsiclesticks

    My fears as well – he’s looked completely lost in coverage so often but if his gains at the end of the season were real and he’s at least average at it now, I can live with that. Obviously I hope he becomes an absolute superstar and does it all well.

    Interesting that Farrior is used as the example here, as he struggled with the Jets and perhaps that was something he didn’t develop right away either.