Pittsburgh Steelers rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier intercepts pass in front of Buffalo Bills tight end Scott Chandler in the first quarter Saturday at Heinz Field.
By Gerry Dulac / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Ryan Shazier spent the offseason and early portions of training camp impressing Steelers coaches and validating his selection at No. 15 overall in the NFL draft.
Missing seven practices at Saint Vincent College and the first preseason game against the New York Giants because of a knee bruise did nothing to slow his progress.
In one of the more impressive debuts in recent memory, Shazier looked every bit the playmaker the Steelers had hoped in a 19-16 preseason victory against the Buffalo Bills Saturday night at Heinz Field.
Shazier had nine tackles -- all solo -- and a 27-yard interception return, not to mention two solo tackles on kickoffs on special teams. He did all that in less than two quarters in his first game in a Steelers uniform and in front of a Heinz Field crowd eager to see him.
"I'm just excited to be back out on the field," said Shazier, the No. 1 draft choice from Ohio State. "Just to be out there and show everyone what I can do. You're always nervous your first game. The NFL was the dream of my life. I finally got the opportunity to do it."
Any question how Shazier might perform after being out for 10 days quickly was erased.
He made four tackles on the Bills' opening drive, then made a solo tackle on the kickoff after the Steelers scored on their second offensive play on Antonio Brown's 76-yard catch-and-run from Ben Roethlisberger.
But he was just warming up.
On the ensuing series, Shazier flashed his athleticism with a lunging two-handed interception that led to the Steelers' second touchdown in the first quarter.
On the play, Shazier was running across the middle with tight end Scott Chandler when he reached high and inside to intercept a pass from EJ Manuel.
Without hesitating, he turned upfield and returned the pick 27 yards to the Bills 37, setting up Roethlisberger's 16-yard touchdown to Markus Wheaton that gave the Steelers a 13-3 lead.
"The way the defense was set up, I was supposed to be on his back shoulder," Shazier said. "I just played it like they wanted."
His only mistake came when he slipped trying to cover Chandler, allowing him to make a catch for a 24-yard gain, setting up a Bills' field goal.
"His pass coverage is awesome," inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons said. "You saw the tackles; he was making tackles left and right. He has the pedigree. He has all the talent and the intangibles you want in an inside linebacker."
Shazier bruised the outside of his knee toward the end of an afternoon practice Aug. 3 in Latrobe. Coach Mike Tomlin described the injury as a "boo-boo" and said it wasn't anything serious. But the Steelers kept Shazier off the field for 10 days before he returned Thursday for the second of the two-day joint practice sessions against the Bills.
That inactivity didn't seem to bother their No. 1 draft choice when it mattered.
"He's an athletic guy who's very fast," defensive end Cam Heyward said. "We keep working with him, by season's start, we'll expect a lot from him. Playing that position, he's going to make a lot of plays."
Timmons was moved this season to the "buck" position on the inside, which is the linebacker who lines to the strong side. The switch was made to accommodate Shazier, who is smaller (6 feet 1, 237 pounds) and faster than Timmons and more suited to the "mack" inside position.
Shazier certainly did that against the Bills.
"I'm looking forward to playing with him," Timmons said.
Gerry Dulac: email@example.com and Twitter @gerrydulac.
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