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Change agent: Steelers LB Shazier leads defensive turnaround
By WILL GRAVES
PITTSBURGH (AP) Ryan Shazier wants to redefine the linebacker position. At least "a little bit."
Or, judging by the display the budding Pittsburgh Steelers star put on in a 26-9 victory over Baltimore on Sunday, maybe a lot.
In the span of four quarters Shazier put all of his remarkable tools on display, the ones his teammates see on a daily basis, the ones that have been far too infrequent for Shazier's liking during his first three seasons in the NFL as the collateral damage from his frenetic play left him on the sideline with alarming regularity.
There was Shazier's sprint into the backfield in the second quarter that forced Ravens running back Austin Collins to cut back into the arms of Cam Heyward, who forced a fumble in Baltimore territory that set up a Steelers touchdown.
There was the freakish leap to tip a Flacco pass into the awaiting arms of teammate Mike Hilton as Pittsburgh (3-1) posted its most lopsided road victory over its AFC North rival since the Ravens ditched Cleveland more than 20 years ago.
"When I feel healthy and I feel good, I feel like I can make plays like that every week," Shazier said. "Just to be able to help Mike get his first pick and for the defense to have three turnovers and us to close the game out, that's all that matters to me."
The most important words there being "when I feel healthy and I feel good."
A notion that's been fleeting at times for Shazier during his three-plus seasons. He has yet to play a full 16-game schedule, the byproduct of a 6-foot-1, 237-pound frame that Shazier admits isn't necessarily built to play a position designed to collide with considerably larger players on nearly every snap.
"I'm not the biggest guy," Shazier said.
Yet he may be one of the fastest. The 4.3-second 40-yard dash time he dropped at his pro day at Ohio State caught everyone's attention. So did his warp-speed aggression.
"A lot of guys want to run fast but not run into people," Steelers linebacker Arthur Moats said. "But he does it all the time, which is what I think makes him so special."
The trick for Shazier is trying to marry his understated confidence, his considerable physical gifts and burgeoning football IQ into a finished product.
Three-plus years in, the growing pains are still there. Several times in a Week 3 loss to Chicago, Shazier found himself out of position because he overran his assignment, the most glaring on Jordan Howard's game-winning 19-yard touchdown run that saw Shazier diving futilely at Howard's feet as Shazier scrambled to get back to the spot he was supposed to be all along.
The image stuck with Shazier, one he revisited several times last week during the early morning hours at the team's practice facility, where Shazier arrives regularly before dawn so he can cram in three hours of film before meetings.
"I was mad because we lost," he said.
A setback Shazier took personally. While he tries to make it a point to not get caught up in the emotional roller coaster of a given game or a given season, it felt as if there was something significant at stake in Baltimore.
Shazier is the one who wears the "dot" in his helmet, meaning it's his job to relay the play calls from defensive coordinator Keith Butler. When Butler took Shazier - and the rest of the defense - to task after getting steamrolled by the Bears, Shazier perhaps felt it more than most.
The result was an emphatic statement against a longtime nemesis that suddenly doesn't look like much of one at the moment.
"We needed that game against Chicago at the end of the day," Shazier said. "It really made us figure out the things we need to work on more and more."
The lessons keep coming for Shazier, whose quickness is equally effective whether he's slashing into the backfield or dropping into coverage.
While he bristles at the notion he could play safety, he admits he takes a certain pride in his pass coverage. It shows. He has five picks in his past nine games, including one each in playoff wins over Miami and Kansas City last season.
"I don't really want people throwing the ball in my area," he said. "I want them to know, if you do, bad consequences."
The proof came to life in the fourth quarter Sunday. Twice the Ravens had the ball trailing by 10. Twice Shazier's hands made the difference. His instinctual break on the pass to Watson cut short one Baltimore drive.
His elastic-armed tip - where he used most of his 42-inch vertical to deflect the pass to Hilton - ended another. Hilton is keeping the ball, though he knows he may owe Shazier.
"He's probably the most athletic linebacker in the league," Hilton said. "The way he can run around, fly, run, jump. He can do it all."
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Updated October 2, 2017