Ron Cook: Steelers linebacker Shazier proves how good he can be against Bengals
January 12, 2016 12:00 AM
Steelers' DB Mike Mitchell and LB Ryan Shazier look to recover a fumble by Bengals' Jeremy Hill after Shazier stripped him of the ball in the fourth quarter of the AFC Wild Card game Saturday at Paul Brown Stadium.
By Ron Cook / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Do you hear it? Listen closely. Don’t you hear the silence? No one is complaining about Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin and their defensive drafts for the Steelers. Not this week, anyway.
The four defensive players the Steelers picked No. 1 in the past five years made significant contributions to their 18-16 win Saturday night. Bud Dupree. Ryan Shazier. Jarvis Jones. Cam Heyward. All played a strong game.
You expect greatness from Heyward, who has been the Steelers’ best defensive player all season. He sacked Cincinnati Bengals quarterback AJ McCarron, forcing him to fumble. He also had two other quarterback hurries.
But the three young linebackers?
Did you see their performances coming?
“It’s the time of year when you’ve got to step up and play,” veteran James Harrison said. “Everything elevates and, right now, they’re starting to elevate their game at the right time.”
Dupree had a tackle for loss against the Bengals. Jones beat All-Pro tackle Andrew Whitworth to sack McCarron, forcing a fumble that was recovered by teammate Cam Thomas and set up a field goal for a 9-0 lead. Shazier was, simply, the best player on the field.
“I thought I played a great game,” Shazier said.
Great doesn’t even begin to describe Shazier’s night. He was credited with 13 tackles, including two for loss. He defended two passes. He forced fumbles by running backs Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill, probably the two biggest defensive plays by the Steelers.
That’s why Colbert and Tomlin picked Shazier No. 1 — 15th overall — out of Ohio State in the 2014 draft.
“They felt like I could be a good player,” Shazier said. “I really feel like I can help this team, but I’m not going to blow smoke up my own butt. I’ve got a lot more to do.”
The Steelers knew they were drafting an undersized linebacker (6 feet 1, 230 pounds) when they took Shazier but figured his outstanding quickness would make up for his size. What the team couldn’t have known is he would have problems staying on the field because of injuries. He missed seven games last season with knee and ankle problems and four this season with a shoulder injury.
Talk-show callers screamed Shazier can’t last at inside linebacker and suggested the Steelers move him to safety. He dismissed that talk — “I really don’t care about the outside or what other people think” — but it wasn’t so easy to sidestep motivating criticism from defensive coordinator Keith Butler, who said midway through the season that Shazier needed to learn to play through routine injuries. “It was kind of tough for me at first,” Shazier said. “I’m still fighting through them. I know you’ve got to play through them.”
Shazier has played in 10 consecutive games since his shoulder injury Sept. 20 against the San Francisco 49ers. He had 15 tackles and a sack before leaving that game, but his effort Saturday was the best of his young career.
“He made plays all over the field,” Heyward said. “We needed every one of them.”
The Bengals and their fans think Shazier should have been penalized for leading with the crown of his helmet on the third-quarter hit that knocked Bernard out of the game. Shazier recovered Bernard’s fumble at the Steelers 25.
“Honestly, I thought it was a good hit,” Shazier said. “I felt like he caught the ball and took three steps. I felt I hit him in his chest. It was a solid tackle.”
The Bengals have only Hill to blame for his fumble on a first-and-10 play from the Steelers 26 with 1:36 left and the Bengals leading, 16-15. “I couldn’t believe he didn’t put two hands on it,” Harrison said. “He’s fighting for yards, but, at the same time, you’ve got to protect the ball. It’s up to us to get it. That’s what Shazier did.”
Ross Cockrell recovered the fumble after Shazier stripped the ball loose. That gave the Steelers the chance to win the game with a field goal in the final seconds.
“I wasn’t ready to go home yet. I felt like nobody was,” Shazier said. “It felt great when the ball started to come out. It felt like things were coming our way.”
The Denver Broncos — the Steelers’ opponent Sunday in the AFC divisional round — knew about Shazier’s big-play capabilities long before the Cincinnati game. When the teams played Dec. 20 at Heinz Field, Shazier’s interception of a Brock Osweiler pass at the Denver 37 set up the deciding touchdown in a 34-27 win.
The great Peyton Manning will be the Broncos quarterback Sunday. Shazier said he looks forward to the challenge.
“This is the best I’ve been feeling pretty much the whole year. I really feel like I can help this team if I am healthy.”
Teammates predicted Shazier will continue to get better. They won’t let his big game against the Bengals go to his head.
“He’s leaps and bounds ahead of where he was last year, but he’s got to continue to grow,” Heyward said. “This can only be a springboard for him. ‘Don’t rest on your laurels now. You’ve got a bright future ahead of you.’ We’re going to keep him grounded.”
Tomlin has the same plan, telling Shazier as he talked to the media Saturday about his big game, “Stop kissing your own behind and get dressed.”
Or something like that.
“He’s made progress, but, at the same time, a lot more progress needs to be made,” Harrison said of Shazier. “What he has done is great. It needs to continue. We’re hoping for bigger and better things.”
Saturday’s game will be hard to top. What the Steelers want from Shazier are many more just like it.
Ron Cook: email@example.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the “Cook and Poni” show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.
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