A single play during June non-contact practice accelerated the Steelers defense’s transformation from old, slow and mostly reliable to young, fast and unpredictable.
Backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski dropped back and attempted to loft a pass into the flat. But rookie Ryan Shazier read the play, sprinted to his left toward the pass, leaped at the right moment and made the kind of interception a Steelers inside linebacker hasn’t made in a long time - practice or not.
Shazier showed off not only his 4.38-in-the-40 speed, but the kind of rare athleticism that made the Steelers invest a first-round draft pick and $ 9.5 million in him.
“I had a zone drop and read the quarterback’s eyes, and I knew he thought he would be able to get it over me a little bit,” Shazier said Wednesday. “I knew it was a little high, but I can get up there.”
Yes he can.
Shazier also can cover a lot of ground in a little bit of time, one reason why, on a day the Steelers began opening up the bag of tricks that their newly acquired players provided them, Shazier was a younger version of Troy Polamalu - lining up everywhere and anywhere.
Once, he was assigned outside coverage on Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown.
Todd Haley’s offense was countering, too - Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount showed off a two-back power set, and another time Bell flanked out wide.
It was one more glimpse into the reshaping of a team that relied on a long-proven cast for an extended period. But now the Steelers are trying to catch up in a hurry as fast, innovative offenses keep speeding up the game.
“You never know with coach (Dick) LeBeau, he can do anything,” Shazier said. “Maybe one play I might be on Antonio Brown. The next play I might be on Le’Veon. The next rep I might be on Heath (Miller). Whatever he wants me to do, whatever he wants the defense to do, we’ll go in there and do.”
In a spring/summer of adjustment for Shazier, this was just another transitional phase.
He is adjusting from mostly playing outside linebacker at Ohio State to playing inside linebacker in the NFL, and in one of the league’s most complex defenses.
But Shazier said the shift isn’t as complicated as it sounds, partly because LeBeau - himself a former Buckeyes player - still consults with the Ohio State defensive staff.
“A lot of stuff we learned at Ohio State is from this defense,” Shazier said. “The coaches came over here every now and then and learned some stuff. Some of it has different terminology, and (is) more complex, but it has a little bit of what we knew.”
New Steelers linebacker Arthur Moats knows what Shazier is experiencing; he played inside and outside in Buffalo but, so far in Pittsburgh, he’s playing outside.
“The biggest thing is here, inside, you’re definitely having to think about a lot more because you have more coverage responsibilities, your run fits are going to be different,” Moats said.
“Outside, you’re just flying off the ball and, sometimes, you can make a mistake because you have the guys behind you who can cover for you. At inside linebacker, you can’t make that mistake because a 10-yard gain turns into a 20-yard gain.”
But when athleticism and anticipation combine on a single play, as on Shazier’s, an apparent 10-yard gain for the offense can turn into a 20-yard interception return by the defense.
“I’m still learning a lot right now - probably on a scale of 1 to 10, I’m about a 6 or a 5,” Shazier said. “I still have a long way to go.”
With his speed, it shouldn’t take him long to get there.
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