The Pittsburgh Steelers largest question marks reside on the defensive side of the football. From the pass rush to coverage, questions abound with the unit trying to help the Steelers advance passed the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC Wild Card game in Paul Brown Stadium Saturday night.
All the players on the defensive side of the football have an important job when going against Jeremy Hill, Tyler Eifert, Giovani Bernard and AJ McCarron, but one player will be the 'X-Factor' for the defense. The player who could take over the game and be the one to make the big play for the defense.
That player is none other than second year inside linebacker, and former first round draft pick, Ryan Shazier.
Shazier has had an odd season. A ridiculous start to the year followed by injuries which kept him out of the lineup for over a month. When Shazier returned to the lineup he didn't have the same look as the player who took over the Week 2 game against the San Francisco 49ers, but in recent weeks he has started to find his form once again.
In the regular season, Shazier tallied 87 total tackles, 3.5 sacks, 2 fumble recoveries, 4 pass defenses and an interception.
Not a bad stat line for the player who some still feel is too small to play inside linebacker in the NFL. Shazier is becoming the quarterback of the defense, and his play against the Bengals will have a lot to do with the success of the defense in the AFC Wild Card game.
Shazier has struggled against linemen who are able to get to the next level in run blocking, and this is something which will have to improve against a very good Bengals offensive line who look to pave lanes for Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard. Shazier's run stopping ability isn't his forte, but he does his best work in the backfield. Keith Butler would be wise to allow Shazier to shoot the gap to not only stop the run, but to blow up potential pass plays as well.
Shazier's play in run defense isn't the best way he can help the Steelers win and impact the game. That would come in coverage. Shazier was drafted in large part for his speed and ability to cover a lot of ground, and also to cover athletic tight ends and running backs in pass patterns. Against Tyler Eifert, who missed the majority of the Week 14 game with a concussion, Shazier will likely be called into duty to cover the former Notre Dame product and prevent him from taking over the game.
If Shazier is able to play one of his inspired games, like Week 2, the Steelers defense will be able to shut down anything the Bengals throw at them. If Shazier struggles in run support and coverage, it could be a long day for Pittsburgh's up-and-down defense. A lot on the line with just one player -- which makes him the 'X-Factor'.