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Linebacker Ryan Shazier becoming Steelers' iron man

| Thursday, Nov. 23, 2017, 7:12 p.m.
Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier makes an interception in front of the Ravens' Benjamin Watson in the fourth quarter.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier makes an interception in front of the Ravens' Benjamin Watson in the fourth quarter.
Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier warms up before a game against the Titans Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017, at Heinz Field.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier warms up before a game against the Titans Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017, at Heinz Field.
Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier plays against the Vikings Sunday, Sept. 17, 2017 at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier plays against the Vikings Sunday, Sept. 17, 2017 at Heinz Field.

Throughout much of the first 2 12 seasons of his career, the only thing missing from Ryan Shazier's ascension to being one of the NFL's best linebackers was Ryan Shazier — as in, his presence on the field.

But Shazier, who finished just 23 of his first 38 regular-season games, has transformed into one of the NFL's iron men.

Really.

“That's all he talks about: making sure he stays healthy,” linebacker Bud Dupree said. “So he takes care of his body. And we're better for it.”

A knee ailment in September of last season was Shazier's fifth in-season injury in the first 25 months of his career. He missed 3½ games. He was eased back into the lineup, splitting time with Vince Williams in a Week 8 loss to New England last October. Shazier started the Steelers' next game and hasn't looked back.

His consecutive games-played streak, counting the postseason, is at 23. Shazier has started 19 games in a row, 22 counting the postseason. In that time, he's accumulated 160 tackles (117 solo), seven interceptions, 19 passes defended, 3 12 sacks and four forced fumbles.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the Steelers are 15-4 in the regular season (17-5 overall) since Shazier began his mini iron-man streak.

“The best Shazier,” defensive captain Cam Heyward said, “is an available Shazier.”

And this Shazier has been pretty good.

Pretty reliable, too.

According to footballoutsiders.com, only five linebackers in the NFL (and only 11 players regardless of position) have played a higher percentage of their team's defensive snaps than Shazier this season.

Over 31 team practices this season that have required an official injury report, Shazier has appeared on the list just twice. But both times he was limited (shoulder, Week 5; quadriceps, Week 6). After each occurrence, Shazier was a full-practice participant the remainder of the week and played all of the Steelers' defensive snaps the following Sunday.

Counting the playoffs, only a handful of players from across the league have logged more defensive snaps since Shazier's streak began Nov. 6, 2016.

“I'm starting to realize that a healthy player is a lot better than someone who is not,” Shazier said during training camp.

While breathtaking speed has always been the hallmark of Shazier's game (he beat his wide receiver teammates in a post-practice race last year, remember?), the tradeoff is being a bit undersized (listed at 230 pounds).

That hasn't necessarily held Shazier back in the NFL, but early in his career it was generally believed Shazier's smallish (by NFL standards) frame was contributing his injuries.

Shazier's career began by missing half his first 22 regular-season games because of injury. Counting the postseason, he missed all or part of 13 of his first 23 games.

While his play justified the 2014 first-round pick the Steelers invested in him, Shazier had yet to prove as durable as his predecessors at inside linebacker: Lawrence Timmons (appeared in 158 of 160 games with the Steelers), James Farrior (appeared in 149 of his first 153 games) and Larry Foote (appeared in 158 of his first 161 games).

“Those guys stayed healthy for the most part,” defensive coordinator Keith Butler said, “and in order to be good in this league, you've gotta stay healthy.”

This season, Shazier has done that.

That coupled with the offseason departure of Timmons has left him the unquestioned leader of the middle of the Steelers' defense. He is tied for fifth in NFL in solo tackles (60), and Pro Football Focus ranks Shazier as the No. 6 linebacker in the NFL with an 88.4 “high quality” rating.

The healthy, breakout season came at a perfect time for Shazier, too, what with him entering the final year of his contract in 2018. Bringing “NFL defensive player of the year candidate” status to the bargaining table could potentially lead to a monstrous payday in the form of an extension next summer.

“It's different when he's out there on the field,” Dupree said. “He's a catalyst of our defense. He makes everything happen. Without him, we'd probably be lost.

“So it's important to us, definitely, for him to stay healthy. Because he's a great person to have, man.”

Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at cadamski@tribweb.com or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.

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