So, Ryan Shazier returned to practice on Wednesday. He said so on Instagram:
I want to thank the Lord for the first downs that he has been allowing me to achieve. The touchdown is going to come in his timing, but today was a first down. I was finally able to make it to practice with my teammates. It’s great to be back for practices and meetings. Just to be able to feel a part of it means the world. So I’m working harder than I ever have to get back. Ive been making strides over the past month and continue to make progress. Taking it day-by-day, but I’m far from done. The Lord has not finished his work yet. I want to say thank you to the fans and Steelers Nation for the prayers. If it wasn’t for my family, friends and your prayers I wouldn’t be were I am now. They have lifted me and my family through this journey and I ask for you to continue praying for me, as I continue to work daily on improving my health. #Shalieve#Steelers#prayfor50
This is a haunting and poignant post, one that evokes a slough of contradictory emotions. You’ll note that Shazier, a 25-year-old, 6-foot-1, 230-pound professional football linebacker renowned for his speed and explosiveness, is confined to a wheelchair, the result of a terrifying back injury he suffered in a game against Cincinnati more than a month ago. Shazier underwent spinal stabilization surgery shortly thereafter and has, according to his father, “regained feeling in his legs,” but subsequent details about his prognosis remain...unclear. (Details outlining Shazier’s ongoing rehabilitation, as well as information concerning his prognosis are, of course, his to share, but the fact that no one can really speak on the particulars is certainly worrisome.) And while those around Shazier believe that he will ultimately return to professional football, the very cruel reality is that he may have played his final NFL game back in December.
But this is precisely the kind of fatalistic outlook that Shazier has consistently worked to mitigate. I mean, look at his face. Look at his smile; a smile that, according to this account, shone brightly from the moment he entered the practice facility. In the accompanying post, his abundant metaphors echo the sentiment he’s held pretty much since the moment he spoke publicly about his injury: I will trust God, I will work to recover, I will continue to be a member of this team.
Shazier did suffer a life-altering injury on what was an otherwise routine tackle, which is both a freak occurrence and an indictment of the state of player safety in the NFL. Obviously, short of continuing to stress the importance of proper form tackling, similar injuries are unavoidable (and have happened on a number of occasions in the college and professional ranks), but to watch a compelling, charismatic, All-Pro-caliber linebacker make a tackle he’s made a million times, crumble to the turf, immediately clutch his back, and remain motionless from his waist down was the most frightening sporting moment I’ve ever witnessed. With this in mind, Shazier’s positivity does provide the NFL (and the outlets that support it) with some very conspicuous public relations angles, which is exactly why articles like this that criticize the league for leveraging Shazier’s appearance at practice as a “feel good story” are fair.
But—and I say this as an avid reader of GQ and an enormous fan of the columnist’s work—Shazier’s handling of this situation, you know, makes me feel good. I could write an extensive itemized list containing a multitude of complaints about the NFL’s many insidious nuances, but seeing Shazier at practice sporting a gigawatt smile, wearing the colors, and watching his teammates work—and reading his teammates’ accounts of what Shazier means to them—underscores the kind of person he is. He’ll likely be honored or acknowledged in some format his Sunday in a game that will, in all likelihood, be Pittsburgh’s final tilt at Heinz Field until September, and it will be a beautiful moment. Let’s discuss some other aspects of that game.
A Tweet-length review of the Jacksonville Jaguars:
The Jaguars defeated the Steelers 30-9 in a game in which Jacksonville’s starting quarterback threw for 95 yards. Somehow, he wasn’t the worst quarterback in that game.
A longer review of the Jacksonville Jaguars:
Last week, the Jaguars defeated Buffalo 10-3 in the Wildcard Round, and Blake Bortles had perhaps the worst performance a winning quarterback has ever had in the postseason: 12 of 23 passing for, I kid you not, 87 yards. Fortunately, winning in spite of Blake Bortles has kinda been Jacksonville’s schtick this season, so the end result wasn’t a huge surprise (though, to be fair, the fact that Bortles, a player whose 40-yard dash time is on par with the likes of Eli Manning, rushed for 88 yards on 10 carries surely helped, too).
Jacksonville’s success, as per usual, was manifested in the performance of its secondary, which held Tyrod Taylor to 134 yards on 17/37 passing (remarkably and almost unbelievably, Taylor’s YPA was somehow even worse than Bortles’) and intercepted a pass. After Taylor was knocked out of the game, the Jaguars, fittingly and predictably, secured a game-ending interception against Nathan Peterman, who threw three interceptions in the time it took to read this sentence (he is seriously so, so awful). Furthermore, if you discount LeSean McCoy from the equation, no Bills receiver caught more than three passes, and none surpassed the 25 yard threshold. Naturally, the trio of Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, and JuJu Smith-Schuster is a little more imposing than the Deonte Thompson, Zay Jones, and Kelvin Benjamin triumvirate, but Jacksonville’s ability to totally shut down Buffalo’s passing attack should concern the Steelers.
Neatest Matchup: Ben Roethlisberger vs. the Five Interception Game
Ben threw five interceptions the last time he faced the Jaguars. Perhaps you’ve heard. He’s not trying to make that happen again. Watching Ben try to make up for his now-infamous Week 5 performance is the neatest matchup.
Second-Neatest Matchup: Jalen Ramsey vs. Antonio Brown
Ramsey, debatably the best cornerback in the NFL and indisputably its best trash talker, will do battle with Antonio Brown, the league’s best receiver. Brown has practiced in full this week despite looming questions about the health of his injured calf, but there’s no telling if he’ll exhibit the shiftiness and agility that are among his most prominent hallmarks. Still, we’ve seen what an 80 percent healthy Antonio Brown is capable of, so this is fixing to be an interesting fight.
Bonus Neat Matchup: Leonard Fournette vs. Pittsburgh’s front seve
Pittsburgh’s loss to Jacksonville back in Week 5 is correctly remembered as the hey, remember that time Ben threw so many interceptions that he wanted to retire game, but Leonard Fournette’s 181 rushing yards and two touchdowns that day are also worthy of note. Fournette was, like, super unproductive against a decent Buffalo front, so it will be interesting to see how he rebounds against a Pittsburgh front seven that is quietly seeking some redemption of its own.
Most Important Storyline: Bortles
Yeah, this is a Steelers site, but there is no bigger x-factor in Sunday’s contest than Bortles. Not long ago, Bortles enjoyed a three- or four-game stretch in which he actually looked the part of a star quarterback: he cut down on turnovers; he was delivering accurate, catchable passes; and he was actively leading Jacksonville to victories. If that Blake Bortles shows up on Sunday, Jacksonville can beat anyone in the NFL. Should Bortles’ track of retrograde showings continue unabated, it should be the Steelers on the winning side of a blowout.
But Blake Bortles has an internet connect, and he knows that everyone thinks he sucks. If the Steelers indirectly admit this and sit back and let Bortles try to beat them, chances are he will; or, at the very least, he’ll ascend to the ranks of game manager and play careful, mistake-free football, supplementing the rushing attack and keeping the defense fresh. The guy is set to hit free agency this offseason, and as Joe Flacco can tell you, parlaying a handful good playoff showings is the key to infinite wealth.
Pick: Steelers 24, Jaguars 20
Shazier’s inspiring return to practice, coupled with Roethlisberger’s desire to atone for his five-interception showing, is a recipe that spells success.
I have no faith whatsoever in Nick Foles.
For the second time in less than a week, a young, soft-spoken Hawaiian quarterback will deliver an iconic performance. Tom Brady will retire, Bill Belichick will accept the Colts head coach vacancy, and Robert Kraft will sell the team to Bernie Sanders, or something.
So, in addition to having a significantly improved secondary, two of the league’s most unheralded stars in Cameron Jordan and Mike Thomas, and what is already an all-time great running back duo, Drew Brees is back to his gun-slingin’ ways. We’re gonna have to wait another year on the whole “playing the Super Bowl in your home stadium” thing.