This continues our series on the talents and highlights of Ryan Shazier seen in the 2015 season. Last week we highlighted his abilities to stop the run and rush the passer, but this edition will focus specifically on his pass coverage skills.
What makes Shazier such an X-factor for the Steelers' defense is that he can fill any role from any position inside the box as a linebacker. Our last two articles focused on how he can rush the passer both up the middle and on the edge, as well as defend the run from various positions in the Steelers' base 3-4 defense and various sub packages.
When quarterbacks and offensive linemen lineup against Shazier before passing plays, they have to identify both where he is and what his assignment might be on that play. If Shazier's blitzing, it will take more than a smaller halfback to keep him from the quarterback, and sometimes even offensive tackles have been unable to keep him from getting around the edge. That kind of attention can create headaches for offenses, but what makes Shazier even more of a nightmare is his ability to drop in coverage and blanket a receiver/tight end.
Pass defense vs. Broncos
Shazier's speed and explosiveness make for him to be a deceptive linebacker in coverage. When a quarterback thinks they have an open passing lane, Shazier can close a distance faster than most, if not every other, NFL linebackers to break up a pass. Here, Shazier breaks out of his back pedal in the zone coverage scheme, identifies the target and breaks up the pass. Textbook coverage from an inside linebacker on a first down out route that most teams would expect to be able to complete against Pittsburgh.
Pass defense vs. Tyler Eifert and Cincinnati Bengals in playoffs
The Steelers have had problems with athletic tight ends for years now, as have most defenses in the NFL with the evolution of the position. Very similar to the last play, Shazier starts this play in a back pedal to cover his zone assignment, then identifies Eifert in his zone and attacks the football as its thrown to the second year tight end out of Notre Dame.
These kinds of plays can be game changers for Pittsburgh's defense in quiet ways. Pittsburgh's bend-but-don't-break style of zone defense has been a system that has worked for many years because it does not allow passing teams to get behind them as much and forces them to have a consistent execution of shorter pass plays down the field, which opens up offenses for more potential mistakes.
The current youth movement in Pittsburgh's defense could change all of that, and that change starts with Shazier. While the defense traditionally begins with the line of scrimmage, Keith Butler, Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert are looking at faster players for the linebacker position and for the secondary who can cut on short passes and tight underneath routes to turn a play from an easy five yard gain for offenses into an incomplete pass or even a turnover.
Much like how the defense knows it cannot allow offenses to gain 4-5 yards on first and second downs so that they can force opponents into obvious passing situations of 3rd and six, seven or more yards, having the ability to shut down the short passing game on early downs can also contribute to the cause of forcing offenses into more difficult third down situations.
Game changing interception vs. Broncos
While pass defenses on early downs are indeed the quiet kind of big plays that can change the way games are played for the Steelers' defense, nothing changes the game more than a crucial turnover. Notice how Shazier can dance around his zone as Brock Osweiller tries to find space to make the throw, and then is able to break on the quick pass to Emmanuel Sanders for the interception.
Shazier's mobility and explosiveness makes for a scary linebacker to test in coverage and with more experience and highlights that he may build in the near future, he could become a player that quarterbacks look to avoid altogether like Troy Polamalu. Having a presence like this in the middle of the field could not only make the job easier for cornerbacks and safeties to be able to watch the flats and deep zones, but also provide the pass rush with an extra 2-3 seconds to get to the quarterback.
Shazier's a quadruple threat
We're not done covering Shazier with this series just yet; even though we have talked about his play against the run, his pass rush skills and now his abilities in coverage, there is still an element that he brings to the table that embodies the spirit of the Steelers' defense, and that's his ability to absolutely maul people in open space.
Our next and last film room on Shazier's 2015 play will focus on what makes him the ultimate renegade, and that's his ability to turn his speed and explosiveness into bone-crushing hits against opponents.