Ryan Shazier spent most of his rookie season in the shadow of Ravens Pro Bowl linebacker C.J. Mosley. Mosley's production this year dwarfed Shazier's output. This has led many to think that it was a mistake to draft Shazier over Mosley.
That may very well turn out to be the case, but after all of Shazier's snaps this year, I am confident in saying that Shazier has the tools to become a very good linebacker for the Steelers.
I saw Shazier do everything you want a linebacker to do. He blew up lead blockers, he covered, he made tackles in the backfield, and he pursued well to the ball. As we all know, the one thing that separates Shazier from others is his speed.
That speed was on full display here:
Shazier transitions from his pass drop to a sprint effortlessly. You'll see a drill that mimics this type of agility a hundred times during the NFL Scouting Combine. One of the things I've heard people say about Shazier is he does not possess football speed. That's ridiculous. Seeing him plant and explode in the opposite direction here is pure football speed.
You can only see this play from the wide angle. That is how far Shazier came to make this play. If he doesn't make the play, this screen pass might score. At minimum, it goes for another 15 yards. This really showcases why the Steelers fell in love with Shazier's ability to run.
Shazier's speed also, obviously, pays dividends in coverage.
What is nice about this play is Shazier's use of leverage in pass defense. This is something that the Steelers secondary struggled with all year. Leverage in pass defense means knowing where your help is and positioning yourself in relation to that help. Here, Shazier has help over the top, so he positions himself inside and underneath the receiver. Moreover, he is able to maintain this relationship as the receiver makes his break.
Finally, against the run, Shazier made some plays this year that you normally don't see linebackers make, especially rookie ones. Shazier's speed allows him to "backdoor" running plays. While in pursuit, linebackers are normally taught to have either outside or inside leverage on a running back, depending upon the run fits of the defense. For example, if a linebacker has cut back, then he pursues inside out. This angle then corresponds with the flow of the back. Running backs can, for example, have a wide flow (outside zone), or they can have a tighter flow. The linebacker's footwork ties in with the back's flow.
So, the linebackers initial footwork and their pursuit angle are determined by the flow of the running back. Now, where things get interesting is when a linebacker gets an open window. An open window is when a linebacker sees a crease in the line of scrimmage that allows them to get downhill immediately. On this running play, the penetration of Troy Polamalu presents an open window to Shazier.
Shazier takes the window, even though it results in him losing leverage on the running back. Shazier loses leverage, but his speed allows him to get back into the play (he gets into the play through the backdoor).
In the few games that Shazier was healthy, he made a lot of tackles like this. Coaches always tell linebackers, if you take the backdoor, you had better have enough speed to make the tackle. Obviously, Shazier does.
The ability to backdoor running plays like this results in a lot of tackles for loss. Someone on the defense has force; it is their job to make the running back cut the ball back. Oftentimes, you see a running cut back and gain a few yards before he is tackled by the linebacker. Here, Shazier eliminates the cut back window because of his speed.
There is a big difference between 2nd and 7 and 2nd and 12.
One of the most tired cliches in football is linebacker instincts. I have no idea what that means. These guys watch hours and hours of film in order to anticipate what the offense will do so that they can gain a step.
Things like down and distance and formation alignment help linebackers diagnose plays presnap. This then allows them to react quicker when their read matches what they thought was going to happen. It is all stimulus-response.
Linebackers (and all defenders) try to gain a step however they can. Shazier's speed already gives him that step. It is not a matter of "instincts".
Instead, it is being comfortable with the defense so you know exactly where you fit on every run and pass play. As Shazier grows more comfortable with the defense, I think we will see more big plays from him. The combination of Shazier and Lawrence Timmons should be a formidable one in 2015.