For years the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense had the ultimate X-factor in Troy Polamalu at strong safety. Polamalu would play deep centerfield, man-to-man coverage, cover the flats, stop the run, line up as a linebacker and anything else the Dick LeBeau could think of or even what he sometimes could not imagine. It eventually got to the point where LeBeau would not even give as much direction to Polamalu because his instincts and athleticism were enough to make him a superstar.
Once Polamalu's prime years were over, the Steelers knew they needed a player that could line up at multiple positions on the field and use their explosiveness to change the game and make offenses always fear where he could come from or what he might do on any play he was on the field.
That player of the future is Ryan Shazier.
Shazier enters his third season with Pittsburgh coming off a strong showing in his sophomore season. As an inside linebacker he changed multiple games throughout the season with big plays and momentum swinging moments. This two part series covers why we think Shazier's presence on the field is already the X-factor player for the defense, the accountable wildcard player that makes plays from wherever he lines up on the field, and why he will continue to be that person for years to come.
The first part of this film room session will highlight Shazier against the run and how he often sliced through offensive lines and picked apart plays before they could begin or would fly into a run scheme to disrupt what could be a big play for the offense.
Deciphers plays behind traffic
Notice how Shazier is targeted by the right guard and is able to keep him at bay while he figures out where C.J. Anderson is going. He then sidesteps the guard and shuts down the play at the line of scrimmage. His quickness makes for a problem when anyone deals with him.
When Shazier started this season he was coming off a rough first year full of injuries and the normal problems with rookies adjusting to the Steelers' defense. His raw speed and explosiveness was why the Steelers chose Shazier with their first round pick in 2014. His ability to cut through gaps in offensive lines will help Pittsburgh shut down run plays and force longer second and third downs.
When at its height, the most recent incarnations of great Steelers defenses start by shutting down the run and forcing offenses into obvious passing situations. Polamalu stopped many run plays because the defensive front occupied enough blockers to give him lanes to attack ball-carriers and make plays at or behind the line of scrimmage. Shazier works behind Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, two brutal defensive ends that brought chaos to offensive lines all through 2015. With their disruptive talents and Shazier's slashing, it makes for a headache for running backs to work around.
This also makes it so that offenses will want to identify him pre-snap and make sure they know where he is so they can plan to stop him.
Lines up anywhere
What makes Shazier the X-factor is that defensive coordinator Keith Butler can place him anywhere on the field and Shazier will be effective. Here he lines up outside of Bud Dupree and works his way into the gap to make a crucial tackle in a goal line situation.
When Shazier can lineup in multiple places and make plays from anywhere, offensive lines have to think more about where he is and how to account for him. The more thinking offenses have to do about Shazier, the better. Pittsburgh benefited from Polamalu being that kind of a player for years and now may have a similar case on their hands with Shazier.
Next up: Pass rushing
Shazier's talents against the run make him formidable to opponents and can take away the bread and butter plays that offenses rely on to gain yards without risking a pass that could turn the ball over. Our next part of this film study will review Shazier's pass rush skills and how he terrorizes quarterbacks.