Mike Tomlin is confident that Ryan Shazier will have a big year, both literally and figuratively.
Speaking at the owner's meeting last week, Tomlin spoke positively about Shazier, who looks to bounce back from a rookie season that was plagued by injuries. Shazier started the first three games last season before knee and ankle injuries limited him to just six games for the rest of the season. While he recorded only 36 tackles last season, the Steelers were 8-1 with Shazier in the lineup last year.
Questions surrounding Shazier last week were in regards to whether or not Tomlin had considered moving the athletic linebacker over to safety, a position that is lacking depth at this particular time. The question wasn't far-fetched; Shazier is light for a linebacker at 237 pounds, and his sub-4.4 40 times during his pro day last year is on par or even faster than some NFL safeties.
Tomlin gave an emphatic 'No' to the question, stating that he expects Shazier to bulk up this off season, similarly to the way veteran linebacker Lawrence Timmons did after his rookie campaign in 2007.
"I often refer to Lawrence’s physical growth and development when I talk to Ryan Shazier," Tomlin said in an interview with ESPN. "Lawrence’s body was very similar to Ryan’s when we drafted him. He was a 20-year-old third-year junior when we drafted him. Obviously Lawrence’s body looks very different now as he pushes into his late 20's and we expect similar growth and development from all of our young people. When I pull out some 2007 and 2008 tape all of those young guys generally laugh at how small Lawrence looks."
Tomlin also made a point to remind the media that while some rookies shine right away, it takes others time to develop. Tomlin used center Maurkice Pouncey as an example of the former, as Pouncey was named to the Pro Bowl after a sterling rookie campaign. Tomlin also mentioned Le'Veon Bell, who struggled while averaging 3.5 yards per carry as a rookie to setting the Steelers franchise record for most yards from scrimmage in his second year.
"(Shazier was) a third-year junior when we drafted him," Tomlin said of Shazier, who declared for the NFL draft after three seasons at Ohio State. "We expect him to grow in all areas and have the type of significance some of those others have achieved."
Tomlin is spot-on in keeping Shazier right where he is at left inside linebacker. If healthy, Shazier is the team's most athletic linebacker, and the team will need him to cover running backs and tight ends on passing plays, especially given the amount of nickel and sub package defense the Steelers have played in recent years. Teams took advantage of the Steelers' inability to consistently cover intermediate routes in 2014, especially Joe Flacco, who worked the middle of the Steelers' defense early and often to the tune of 31 completions for 334 yards in the Wild Card loss at Heinz Field.
Shazier's athleticism and ability to defend the pass is one of the reasons the Steelers drafted him fifteenth overall in the '14 NFL Draft. Shazier broke up 11 passes and returned an interception for a touchdown in his sophomore season at OSU in 2012. The following season, Shazier paced the Big 10 in tackles and tackles for loss while being named a Butkus Award finalist.
Shazier's draft bio on NFL.com raved about his athleticism, saying: "Shazier flies around the field and his unique athletic ability stands out. Offers a tremendous combination of speed, tackling and coverage skills to become a play-maker as a run-and-hit 4-3 or perhaps a 3-4 weak-side 'backer if protected by a block-occupying nose tackle. Value is increased by the fact that he will not have to come off the field."
This college highlight video of Shazier showcases his speed, in particular his ability to chase down running backs and athletic quarterbacks down the sidelines.There are also several plays that shows Shazier's ball-hawking skills that includes his pick-six against Penn State at the 1:13 mark of the video. Another facet of Shazier's game that stands out when watching his highlights is his ability to "hit and stick", usually stopping the ball-carrier dead in his tracks. The tape also shows Shazier's knack for wreaking havoc on opposing quarterbacks in blitz packages, something the Steelers could draw up for him on occasions in 2015.
Another promising fact after re-visiting his college career is that Shazier does not have a history of being injured; he didn't miss a single game in college and rarely left the field as Ohio State's every-down linebacker. Hopefully, Shazier's health issues from 2014 are in the past and will remembered merely as a fluke.
With question marks surrounding the entire linebacker unit, it's imperative that Shazier has a solid season in 2015. And after hearing Tomlin's optimism and looking back over Shazier's impressive resume, Steelers fans should expect more from a healthy Shazier in 2015. Strong linebacker play used to be the hallmark of Steelers football, and hopefully a healthy, bulked up Shazier can add to that legacy.