Starkey: LeBeau not about to simplify defense
“Tackle by Shazier.”
By the end of the first quarter Saturday, the Heinz Field press box announcer had uttered that phrase so many times, the rest of us might hear it in our heads for about a week.
The guy probably woke up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night and blurted out “Tackle by Shazier” 25 times.
What a debut for Steelers rookie linebacker Ryan “Boo-Boo” Shazier. In a little more than a quarter, he made 11 tackles, including two on kickoff returns. He also returned an interception 27 yards to set up a touchdown and sent Buffalo's prized rookie receiver, Sammy Watkins, to the locker room with a rib injury.
Shazier's first start had been delayed a week because of a bruised knee or, as coach Mike Tomlin repeatedly labeled it, a “boo-boo.” And he wasn't perfect. Some of those tackles came after decent gains, and in the second quarter, he slipped in coverage and allowed a 24-yard gain on third-and-27.
But he made more than twice as many tackles as anyone on either team in the first half. His was the kind of performance that lent a visual to the oft-repeated notion that this newfangled Steelers defense is fast, fast, fast.
Earlier in the week, coordinator Dick LeBeau delivered this opinion: “Position to position, it's probably the fastest group we've had.”
I believe him. But I also wonder if the complexities of LeBeau's defense are sometimes too much for rookies. Consider the case of linebacker Jarvis Jones, who recorded all of one sack during a rocky rookie year in which he often looked lost.
And check out this amazing quote from linebackers coach Keith Butler, who told Steelers Digest just how lost Jones was.
“Jarvis was running around last year like a chicken with his head cut off,” Butler said. “He'd be asking, ‘What do I do? What do I do?' and the ball's snapped. … That's the reason I don't like to start rookies. They don't know what to do — most of the time. And Jarvis didn't know. He didn't have any idea, so he's hollering over to Jason Worilds, ‘What do I do?' And then he'd be asking Lawrence (Timmons), ‘What do I do?' ”
Don't look now, but two more rookies — Shazier and Stephon Tuitt — are candidates to start this season. As such, I wondered if LeBeau had considered streamlining the defense to make it easier for the young guys.
I couldn't tell whether he laughed or bristled.
“No, I've actually gone the other direction,” LeBeau said. “The tenor of your team changes every year, and as a coach, if you're worth your salt, you look at the guys you're gonna have and try to identify what their particular strengths are and put them in position to utilize those strengths. That is oftentimes creating new defenses or at least new flows to the pressures. We've added (concepts) to take advantage of some of the speed we've acquired.
“So no, we haven't slowed down. We've expanded.”
OK then. That leaves part of me wondering if half the team will be yelling, “What do I do?” when the Steelers line up Sept. 7 against the Cleveland Browns.
The other part, however, looks back at Shazier against the Bills and says, “Who cares?” Let the kid run into and out of his mistakes.
And to be fair to LeBeau, rookies everywhere tend to struggle. It's not just his defense.
This whole unit will be training on the job early on. While Shazier and Troy Polamalu made their preseason debuts Saturday, Jones sat out. We might not see the starting unit intact until Week 1.
“Do I think we'll be perfect in the first week? Probably not,” LeBeau said. “But I have no question that these young guys can learn the defense.”
At the very least, the newfound athleticism should enable the Steelers to keep small mistakes from turning into, say, 93-yard runs by the other team's quarterback.
Plus, the schedule is tailor-made for a unit that might need time to gel.
Do you know how many top-15 scoring offenses from 2013 the Steelers face in the first seven weeks? None. And they only face one (Indianapolis) in the first 11 weeks before the schedule takes a turn. By that point, you hope the young guys know what to do.
Something tells me that even if they don't, we'll be hearing “Tackle by Shazier” in our sleep. And that can't be a bad thing.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.