Shazier breakout game comes at right time for Steelers

Mark Kaboly
| Sunday, Jan. 10, 2016, 9:15 p.m.

Ben Roethlisberger created a stir this week when he publicly called out Martavis Bryant for needing to be tougher, especially during playoff time.

It worked as Bryant made a spectacular touchdown catch during the Steelers' 18-16 wild-card playoff win Saturday over the Bengals.

Rewind a month before that, and Keith Butler did the same thing with a talented yet underachieving player on the defensive side of the ball: Ryan Shazier.

“If you are waiting to feel good before you play, you are never going to play,” Butler said then about the oft-injured former first-round pick.

Shazier must've felt good during Saturday's game. After, he likely felt even better.

Shazier had a breakout performance against the Bengals that helped propel the Steelers into Sunday's division-round playoff game against top-seeded Denver (12-4) at Sports Authority Field.

Shazier had 13 tackles, two tackles for losses, a quarterback hit and two important forced fumbles. And — get this — the injury-prone Shazier played all 74 defensive snaps for a defense that kept the Bengals out of the end zone for three quarters.

That's exactly what the Steelers envisioned when they drafted Shazier 15th overall 2014.

“That's the play we need from him,” defensive end Stephon Tuitt said. “We knew he was capable of doing that, too. It was a matter of time before he broke out. No matter when it happened, it happened. We are glad he made it happen in game like that.”

Shazier has had flashes of greatness before, most notably in Week 2 against the 49ers when he had a career-high 15 tackles and a sack in a little more than three quarters.

But he never has been able to stay healthy long enough to consistently be a dominant force.

Some of that has been bad luck, and some of it, according to Butler, was the inability to play through injuries.

“I don't think he listens to any of that, or at least he shouldn't,” safety Mike Mitchell said. “He has been playing outstanding when he is out there, and he just needs to focus on being out there.”

Shazier impressed the coaches enough that they took away the defensive play calling from Lawrence Timmons and gave it to Shazier.

However, since the Steelers drafted Shazier, he has been on the injury report 19 times.

Shazier missed seven games his rookie year with knee and ankle problems. This year, a knee and shoulder injury sidelined him. In both instances, Shazier was out longer than anticipated.

This year, when Shazier injured his shoulder against the 49ers, he missed the next four games without much explanation from anybody, including coach Mike Tomlin.

Shazier hasn't missed a game since returning Week 7 in Kansas City. He sat a portion of the Seattle game with a concussion but returned the next week.

Saturday was validation for Shazier.

“It felt good because I feel healthy,” Shazier said. “There have been a lot of ups and downs for this team this year. It felt good to go out there and have fun and do the things we know we can do. It was definitely a relief because I could help out my team the way I know I could. I was just doing what those guys were asking me to do.”

Shazier forced a fumble of Gio Bernard with the Bengals driving late in the third quarter. And, of course, he made the season-saving forced fumble of Jeremy Hill with a little more than a minute left in what seemed like a hopeless effort for the Steelers.

“It was probably the play of the game for us,” Mitchell said.

The Steelers kicked the winning field goal nine plays later for their first playoff win in five years.

“Seeing what he did (Saturday night) was great,” linebacker James Harrison said. “We had to have a play and get a turnover, and he ball searched. It was probably his best game stat-wise he's had.”

Mark Kaboly is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at mkaboly@tribweb.com or via Twitter @MarkKaboly_Trib.

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