Ryan Shazier of the Ohio State Buckeyes poses with a jersey after he was picked #15 overall by the Pittsburgh Steelers during the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall on May 8, 2014 in New York City.
By Ed Bouchette / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It might be quaint, maybe even old fashioned but the Steelers follow a philosophy on defense that stood the test of time: Stop the run first and when they do that, pressure the quarterback.
Their most obvious need might have been at cornerback entering the 2014 draft, and they would have grabbed Justin Gilbert in the first round had Cleveland not done so long before them.
But at the start and right up to the end, this was a Steelers draft to stop the run and pressure the quarterback, one in which four of their nine selections were devoted to a front seven that is under reconstruction, including their top two picks.
The Steelers long have believed that you could have Mel Blount and Rod Woodson playing cornerback in their prime, but if you do not pressure the quarterback into early throws or panic, it would not matter. Give a quarterback time the way the game is played today, and he will find open receivers.
Thus, the Steelers drafted Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt, a linebacker and defensive end, with their first two picks. They followed with another linebacker and nose tackle in the sixth round.
When the ESPN lights went out Saturday night on the draft, general manager Kevin Colbert pronounced, “We got somebody from every position group except the quarterbacks.”
Yet despite drafting two linebackers, they did nothing to fortify the premier pass-rushing position on their 3-4 defense, outside linebacker. Yes, they drafted one of those in the first round a year ago in Jarvis Jones and yes, they managed to keep their leading pass rusher from 2013 in Jason Worilds.
Those are two players who have not yet started a full season. They have replaced two linebackers who ranked fourth (James Harrison, 64) on their career sacks list and seventh (LaMarr Woodley, 57) over the course of 13 months. Worilds and Jones have a combined 19 sacks.
Their top backup at outside linebacker is newcomer Arthur Moats, who in four seasons with the Buffalo Bills had 5.5 sacks. Their only other outside linebacker with any experience is Chris Carter, their fifth round pick in 2011 who has four career starts and is still searching for his first sack.
So it would appear the Steelers have put all their pass-rushing eggs in the form of Worilds and Jones.
Shazier and sixth-round Jordan Zumwalt played inside and outside in college, although the Steelers have said they will play inside linebacker for them. They also could move Lawrence Timmons outside again if an emergency exists.
It also raises the question of whether they might re-sign James Harrison. They wanted him back a year ago but he turned them down to sign with Cincinnati. After the Bengals released him recently, the Steelers discussed him. But unless the situation gets dire at outside linebacker, it does not look as if that will happen, even after they came up empty at the position in the draft.
But Shazier can be the wild card in their ability to put pressure on the quarterback. While they might call him an inside linebacker, he might be tough to label, the way Troy Polamalu is not merely a strong safety.
Shazier’s presence could be felt all over the field, even rushing from inside on the quarterback more often than any of their previous “mack” linebackers (Lawrence Timmons will switch to the buck, which was Larry Foote’s old position).
Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said it is possible they will use Shazier the way they did Polamalu in 2013.
“From what I have been able to gain from watching him play, there is not a heck of a lot that you can ask him to do that he doesn’t have the athletic ability to do it.
“He can run. I’ve been impressed with his instincts. He can diagnose and get through some trash to get to the ball. It’s going to be fun with him, to be honest with you. … He’s going to get on people quicker than they know because he’s very fast.”
One of those people may well be the quarterback.
The remade front seven will include just one holdover starter from their 2012 season, Timmons.
The lineup projects like this: Cameron Heyward and Tuitt at ends, Steve McLendon at nose tackle, Worilds and Jones at outside linebacker and Timmons and Shazier on the inside.
Those first two draft picks should start quickly.
“Both of these players, if all develops as anticipated, are going to get a lot of playing time,” LeBeau said of Shazier and Tuitt. “Sometimes in the past we’ve been in a position where our draft choices don’t necessarily have to play for a year or so. That is definitely not the case in this situation.”
It’s more a case of they must play this year.
The Steelers can invite players to their rookie camp this week as “tryouts,” which also allows them to field full teams in the three-day practices. While the team has not revealed who those players might be, some have announced on Twitter they have accepted invitations from them to try out, including safety Jake DeMedal of Saint Francis University in Loretto, Pa., and a New Wilmington, Pa., native. A year ago, undrafted West Virginia linebacker Terence Garvin was invited for a tryout to rookie camp, signed a contract after the camp, started one game and played in 15 on special teams.
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