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Starkey: Steelers' young defenders on the spot

| Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016, 7:24 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton hurts his thumb as he tackles the Steelers' Stephon Tuitt after Tuitt's interception of a Dalton pass in the first quarter Sunday, Dec. 13, 2015, in Cincinnati.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Steelers defensive end Stephon Tuitt intercepts a pass during the first quarter against the Bengals on Sunday, Dec. 13, 2015, in Cincinnati.

The Steelers have taken plenty of flak, plenty of it deserved, for not drafting as well on defense as offense in recent years.

Cam Heyward was a great pick, obviously, but the jury's still deliberating on outside linebackers Jarvis Jones and Bud Dupree. It has long since delivered a verdict on Ziggy Hood (Steelers found guilty of first-round fraud) and isn't far from rendering one on Shamarko Thomas and Cortez Allen (team likely to be found negligent on both). The failure to prioritize or develop the cornerback position remains a total mystery.

However, there are two under-25 players here that any team would want: right end Stephon Tuitt and inside linebacker Ryan Shazier (injury issues or not). Each could be a crucial factor Saturday night. Each showed his pedigree on the last visit to Cincinnati by making a ridiculously athletic and game-altering play.

Tuitt's play you remember. It changed the season for both teams. He snuffed out the Bengals' call, backed off the line and snagged an Andy Dalton pass just before it hit the turf. Dalton then fractured his thumb trying to tackle the tank that is Tuitt.

Before practice Thursday, Tuitt smiled when I asked him to recount his catch.

“I read it,” he said, “and made a spectacular play.”

If you'll recall, Tuitt also split wide on the infamous fake field-goal attempt at Seattle. Is there something we don't know about this guy's history as a pass catcher?

“I'll keep that (to myself),” Tuitt said, laughing. “I don't want any information going out.”

The play Shazier made was less dramatic but no less eye-opening. It happened with the Bengals facing third-and-3 at their 9 with 1:52 left in the first half. AJ McCarron had thrown a stunning 66-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Green on the previous possession. Cincinnati trailed 13-7.

Then Shazier happened.

McCarron flipped a quick receiver screen to Mohamed Sanu, who had a clear path to a first down. Shazier reacted immediately, traveled a long way and finished with extreme malice. He displayed Troy Polamalu-like closing speed and crushed Sanu short of the sticks. The Steelers kicked a field goal to put them up by nine. Game changer. That's why you take these guys early in drafts.

This will mark another homecoming for Shazier, a former Ohio State star, only this time with bigger stakes.

“It really means a lot, just to go out there and be able to play them again, especially in the playoffs,” Shazier said. “Everybody in this locker room is excited about it.”

There will be a lot of excitement going around if the defense shows up Saturday. Some weeks (home against Cincinnati, Arizona) that happened in a big way. Other weeks it didn't, but the Steelers defense tied the Jets for most turnovers (30) in the AFC and recorded 48 sacks, third in the NFL.

This defense could be like the 2009 Saints — not overly stingy but adept at producing sudden field-flips to help a potentially lethal offense. It also would surprise no one if it allowed McCarron to pull a Ryan Mallett.

McCarron has shown in three starts, plus the game against the Steelers, that he can make big-boy NFL throws. He also had two terrible throws against the Steelers but has not been picked off since. On the other hand, the Bengals were 0 for 9 on third-down conversions Sunday against the Ravens.

The Steelers' young guys will have a lot to say about this, Jones (who's 26 already) and Dupree included. If enough of them make plays, and if the Steelers win, nobody will be talking about the quality of recent drafts.

Not for at least another week, anyway.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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