Based on their study of the 2013 NFL season, the Steelers learned they had aligned in their base 3-4 defense about one-third of the time. In other words, through personnel groupings opponents put the Steelers in one of their sub-packages twice as often as they were in their base defense.
Because of this, because of the evolution of NFL offenses and the way the sport is now officiated, it only made sense to the Steelers that they take appropriate steps to deal with this reality.
Their method of dealing took shape during the first round of this draft when they used the No. 15 overall pick to add Ryan Shazier, who arrived in Pittsburgh earlier today for a meet-and-greet and then an introductory news conference, and he brought with him a set of measurables that can re-define the position he is slated to play.
Shazier had Steelers President Art Rooney II present him with a No. 50 Steelers jersey, and he will present a markedly different type of athlete than the man who wore the number most recently. Larry Foote was a valuable starting inside linebacker on Steelers teams that played in three Super Bowls and won two during his tenure, but athletically there's no comparison with Shazier.
Back in 2010 as the Steelers were beginning a run to a 12-4 record and a spot in Super Bowl XLV, there was the idea that the defense needed to be younger and faster at inside linebacker, that Lawrence Timmons was a better option at the position than Foote. And so it was that Timmons replaced Foote at inside linebacker next to James Farrior.
At the start of the 2013 season – three years later – Foote was a starter once again, and in fact was considered an important part of the Steelers defense despite not being any younger or faster. Foote sustained a season-ending biceps injury in last year's opener, and after the season he was released by the Steelers and subsequently signed a one-year contract with the Arizona Cardinals.
And so while Foote's career here should be remembered fondly for what he brought to the team on the field and in the locker room, it's also undeniable the defense needed an athletic upgrade at the position if the team is to return to the playoffs after consecutive 8-8 finishes.
Shazier provides an athletic upgrade, and he does so in dramatic fashion. His time in the 40-yard dash was either a 4.38 or a 4.40 depending upon whose finger was on the stopwatch, but both of those times are better than Sammy Watkins' 4.43. At the Combine, Shazier's 42-inch vertical jump was the best among all linebackers, his 130-inch broad jump was the best among all linebackers, his 6.91 seconds in the 3-cone drill was the best among all linebackers, and he finished up with 25 repetitions on the bench press.
"I think (Shazier) just represents what's going on in football today," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "College football, with the ability to spread people out, you need people who can play in vertical and horizontal space. He has shown the ability to do that. It has leaked over into the professional game. Just the other day we were talking about the expansion of sub-package football and what that means to defenses going forward. This is a guy who really excels under those circumstances."
But Shazier is more than a workout warrior. In just three seasons at Ohio State, Shazier recorded over 200 solo tackles, a level only five other players in school history ever have reached. In his first college start – in a 2011 game vs. Penn State – Shazier made 15 tackles and was a critical part of a goal-line stand in the second half. Check out the video on YouTube.
"I first talked to the Steelers at the Combine, and we had a good time," Shazier said during his introductory news conference. "They just told me what they saw in my abilities and how they felt I fit, and then we did some board (work) at the combine. They just asked me to show my base defense (on the board), some of my sub-packages, and then they showed me some of the things that they do, and then they wanted to see if I could remember it."
Explained Tomlin, "His production speaks for itself. You don't make 200-plus tackles without running to the ball. His tape says that, he doesn't need my endorsement. He plays with a great deal of urgency, and not only in 2013 but in 2012 and 2011. We've looked at a lot of Ohio State tape over the course of his career. He was a significant contributor from the day he stepped on campus, and he really improved over the course of his stay there."
And on top of that was a combination of athletic skills that make Ryan Shazier a special prospect.
"When you start talking about guys at the linebacker position running sub-4.5s," said Tomlin, "that's rare air."