Rookie LB Shazier impresses in Steelers debut
In any other game in any other preseason, Ben Roethlisberger's expert execution of the no-huddle offense and his precision passing would have been the Steelers' story of the night.
Oh, yes, and the second 40-yard catch by uber-fast Dri Archer in as many games.
Not this time, not this game, not with Ryan Shazier performing this way — straight out of Jack Lambert's memorable-debut-for-a-rookie-linebacker playbook.
If his rookie season, or his career, can even begin to match the first-round draft pick's first night in a Steelers uniform — albeit in a 19-16 victory over the Buffalo Bills in a game that doesn't count — Shazier could be a special player indeed.
“I'm just trying to do what the coaches want me (to do). I'm not trying to do anything special,” Shazier said following a performance one teammate labeled as “amazing.” “I'm going to continue to do what I'm doing.”
If he can keep doing it like this, he will be special in the way Troy Polamalu and Roethlisberger and, yes, Lambert were impactful early in their careers. Special in the way that 8-8 won't be an acceptable record for a faster and re-energized team that, thanks partly to its promising rookie class, has a different look and feel than the veteran-dominated teams of 2012 and '13.
Fittingly enough, Hollywood moviemaker Thomas Tull, one of the Rooneys' ownership partners, walked around the locker room afterward in a Lambert 58 jersey.
No doubt coach Mike Tomlin won't publicly display much excitement about how Shazier ran down running backs and receivers. How he made the tackle on the first two Bills-returned kickoffs. How he looked Ray Lewis-like in jumping Bills tight end Scott Chandler's pass route to intercept an EJ Manuel pass. How he made the tackle on four of the first seven plays.
And that was just the first quarter. He finished with a game-high nine tackles — plus two special teams tackles — in a quarter and a half.
“I thought he did some good things,” Tomlin said. “But it's not unlike what he's done when he's worked from the instant he got here. He's proven that it's not too big for him. So I can't tell you that I'm surprised.”
Neither is fellow inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons.
“Shazier is helping us improve a lot,” he said. “That's huge. To have that on the field is amazing.”
The Steelers signaled three months ago they expected Shazier to be different from the normal rookie by plugging in their first-round draft pick with the starters on the first day of offseason workouts. The number of Steelers rookies to start a season-opening game in defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's defense: zero.
But Shazier and defensive end Stephon Tuitt could start the Sept. 7 opener against Cleveland as part of an energized defense that's turned over all but three starters in three seasons.
“The game is different now. They're pushing young guys out there that play fast,” said Polamalu, the elder statesman of that defense.
Regardless of the circumstances, a preseason game or the opponent (the Bills were 6-10 last season and haven't made the playoffs since 1999), this was impressive.
Shazier showed off his cornerback-like speed, his ability to roam sideline-to-sideline that impressed the Steelers during his final season at Ohio State and his read-the-play instincts he displayed on his interception.
It was only a start, but what a start.
The same could be said about Roethlisberger's work in the no-huddle, which he ran almost exclusively for more than one quarter as the Steelers attempted to end a five-game preseason losing streak.
Roethlisberger took advantage of a collision in the Bills secondary to connect with Antonio Brown on a slant that created a 76-yard catch-and-run score on the Steelers' second play from scrimmage.
“This is how the thing (no-huddle) should work,” Roethlisberger said. “The communication was what I wanted to work on.”
“We came out fast and started fast,” Brown said.
Running the no-huddle on all but two plays of the Steelers' eight-play, 37-yard drive set up by Shazier's interception, Roethlisberger finished it off with a 16-yard scoring pass to Markus Wheaton, who deked cornerback Stephon Gilmore with an inside-out move.
“Markus stayed outside and ran a great route,” Roethlisberger said. “I just put it in the corner (of the end zone).”
Wheaton ran the exact same route against the same defender as he did during the two practices against the Bills last week in Latrobe.
“Same exact route, same side, same everything,” Wheaton said. “When I ran it then, the coverage was little bit tougher. … This time, Ben threw me a perfect ball, it was perfect, exactly what we wanted.”
This was what the Steelers wanted to see from Wheaton, who has had a strong camp as he follows up a wipeout rookie season disrupted by two broken fingers.
So was the win, the Steelers' first in six preseason games dating to the 2012 preseason finale against Carolina. They went 0-4 last August, then matched that with an 0-4 September.
The two scoring passes — twice as many as Roethlisberger had in his last five preseason games — made it 13-3, as Shaun Suisham missed the experimental 33-yard extra point following the Brown score.
The Bills, finishing up a long week in Pittsburgh, came back in the third quarter to tie it at 13-13 on a 1-yard run by Anthony Dixon following Landon Cohen's 59-yard return of a Landry Jones fumble.
Before that, Archer contributed his second big play in as many weeks, a 40-yard catch of a Jones pass to the Buffalo 29.
But after the Bills went for a game-tying, 44-yard field goal by Dan Carpenter rather than going for the win with two minutes remaining, rookie linebacker Howard Jones recovered his third fumble in two games, returning it 19 yards to the 1 to set up Suisham's decisive 20-yard field goal.
“I feel like no matter if it's a preseason game or regular season game, as long as you've got a game out there guys are going to be energized,” Shazier said. “I feel like we did a great job, we all had a lot of energy.”
Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.
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