Steelers' young linebackers eager to make mark
Ryan Shazier epitomizes the evolution of the Steelers linebacker corps: The rookie inside linebacker is fast, strong and smart.
So far, the only unanswered question about the team's No. 1 draft pick is his durability. He already has missed a few practice reps in training camp because of a series of aches and pains. He was laboring on his left side one day, then favoring his right the next.
Yet defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau can't wait to see Shazier in game action. He's convinced the Ohio State product is the real deal.
“Ohio State asked me to do a lot, so it's become easier to understand this defense,” Shazier said. “I'm doing what they ask me to do.
“I don't have a problem playing. I'll continue to do what I've done in the past. We talk about learning the defense from my eyes.”
LeBeau might have to wait to see how Shazier responds in an NFL game. Coach Mike Tomlin said a decision on Shazier's availability probably won't be made until shortly before Saturday night's preseason opener against the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium.
LeBeau, though, figures he has seen enough of his young linebackers to bolster his confidence in their abilities.
“They've been very much a pleasure for the whole coaching staff,” LeBeau said. “They know they've got a lot to learn, and they're very open to coaching.
“We don't know when, but we're expecting some pretty good things out of these guys. I don't want to overload their expectations.”
That might be too late. The expectations already are high for Shazier, Jarvis Jones, Jason Worilds and Vince Williams.
“(Shazier) has exceptional athletic ability,” LeBeau said. “I think he's going to be able to make a lot of plays for us.
“We're going to be fast there. We've got four fast guys there. We're coming along with some depth, and we're still looking to develop that.”
The young linebackers, under the tutelage of veteran Lawrence Timmons, still are learning the game. Yet unlike past years, they aren't afforded the opportunity to watch and learn. Instead, the classroom is the playing field.
“For years, the linebacker position has stood strong for this organization,” Jones said. “We're trying to build on that, but we have a lot of respect building to do here, and we have to put our foot down.”
“We know we have all the ability we need,” Worilds said. “We just have to put it all together.
“We all have speed and things that make all of us unique. The continuity of knowing where you're going to play has made a big difference. It's one thing to learn this position. It's another having to play it, and I've had to learn to play both outside positions.”
The Steelers' 55-31 loss to New England was a snapshot of the 2013 season, illustrating the need for athleticism at linebacker. A still-mending Rob Gronkowski had game highs of nine catches and 143 receiving yards.
“If we're not sound technique-wise, guys like Tom Brady will expose you,” Jones said. “We need to use our speed and quickness to blitz and bring a lot of pressure to make teams do the things they aren't comfortable with. The key is stopping the run because it will allow our athletes, especially the linebackers, to make some plays.”
Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com.