By Chris Mueller Special to The Times | 0 comments
Ryan Shazier is already the starter.
At least, that’s what the Steelers have led me to believe after one day of OTAs. The first round pick from Ohio State lined up at inside linebacker with the rest of the starters, and, by all accounts, went through a perfectly fine day of shorts-and-helmets football.
I know, this isn’t exactly a newsflash. Nor is it likely exciting to many of you.
It is different, though. And it is good.
The time-honored tradition of Steelers rookies, specifically those on defense, needing to learn in a mostly passive way for a full season is finally going away. And not a moment too soon, either.
If you haven’t noticed it, you haven’t been paying nearly close enough attention. The Steelers’ defense, once an outfit that struck legitimate fear in the hearts of everyone this side of Tom Brady, has been in significant decline.
At times the numbers have masked it, but keen observers know that this has not been the fearsome, turnover-forcing Steelers defense of recent vintage. Lately the defense has looked slower, older and mostly devoid of playmakers. Playmakers and speed.
One of the reasons for that is the steep learning curve that fans and media alike hear so much about. It is accepted as an article of faith that LeBeau’s defense is so complex that only experienced players can properly execute it.
If this defense was pulling its weight, if it was forcing plenty of turnovers and if it appeared to be the kind of disruptive force that drove the Steelers to so many wins, this would be fine. No one would complain about older, slower veterans plying their trade.
It isn’t, and it hasn’t been. The time is right for new blood to be thrown into the fire right away and asked to learn on the fly. Shazier being installed as the starter, even on the first day of OTAs, would seem to suggest that the team understands the necessity of speed.
This is not to suggest that Shazier will be perfect right away. That’s doubtful. But learning his position with the rest of the starters will only help speed up his development. Luke Fickell, his position coach at Ohio State, said that one of Shazier’s best qualities is his ability to play at full speed even when forced to “think” the game.
That ability will serve him well with the Steelers. And even if he doesn’t know all of his assignments right away, he’ll learn soon enough, and fans will at least get to watch a fast, athletic and young player get a shot.
Not a second-year player who worked his way into 11 passable starts as a rookie last year, like Vince Williams. Not a veteran like Larry Foote, a step or two slow but steeped in knowledge of scheme. No, they’ll watch a player go through some growing pains but also likely fly around and make plays.
Hopefully Stephon Tuitt, the exciting defensive line prospect from Notre Dame, gets the same chance as Shazier. Hopefully this new trend holds.
Pro football is a young man’s game, and regardless of scheme, it is a game decided by player execution, not coaching brilliance. The Seahawks, a team that didn’t disguise its defensive intentions all that much, won the Super Bowl by being faster, more physical and more dynamic on defense than everyone else.
Those qualities -- ferocity, speed, power -- are all most readily associated with younger players.
Ryan Shazier is inexperienced, but he is fast, young and has the potential to be dynamic. He’s new blood, getting a chance right away, not having to complete his apprenticeship.
If the Steelers want their defense to return to its previous form, players like Shazier need to become the rule, not the exception.
Chris Mueller is a co-host of the Starkey & Mueller Show weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.