Of all the disappointments of the 2014 Pittsburgh defense, arguably the most demoralizing factor of all was the fact Steelers fans missed out on seeing a healthy Ryan Shazier and Jarvis Jones anchoring the linebacking corps. Pittsburgh has spent a first round draft choice in each of the last two seasons on the pair of linebackers, only to see them suffer from nagging injuries.
Fortunately, the time away from the field allowed both Shazier and Jones to observe their teammates in the system and learn the playbook. In fact, the strong play from replacements like Arthur Moats, Vince Williams and Sean Spence, coupled with James Harrsion's emergence from retirement relegated both Shazier and Jones to role-player duties once they returned to the active roster.
Mike Tomlin acknowledges the hardships faced by the pair of young linebackers, but suggests the time away may have benefited their long term effectiveness, according to Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
"It creates misery, short-term misery, but also an opportunity for big-time growth," Tomlin said.
Shazier was quick to echo Tomlin's sentiment.
"Actually, I think it (the time away) really helped me learn a lot," Shazier said. "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. I got more knowledge of the playbook, and that is really going to help me."
With more holes on defense than draft picks or dollars to spend on free agents, the incumbent Steelers players, like Shazier and Jones, are going to have to step up and contribute. As the only outside linebacker under contract, Jones will be presented with a golden opportunity to seize the starting job and kick-start his career, while a healthy Shazier will be teamed up with one of the best middle linebackers in football, Lawrence Timmons. With an underrated defensive line, Shazier's athleticism should allow him plenty of room to make tackles during the 2015 season.
While their on-field production lacks results, Ryan Shazier and Jarvis Jones can certainly say they've had experience learning the system from afar. Hopefully their bodies respond next season and deliver results.