Steelers LB Shazier shows acumen handling play-calling duties

The Steelers defense celebrates against the 49ers in September 2015 at Heinz Field.
The Steelers defense celebrates against the 49ers in September 2015 at Heinz Field.
Photo by Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Jerry DiPaola
| Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016, 9:21 p.m.

If anyone understands the calls, codes and alignments running through Steelers inside linebacker Ryan Shazier's head as he tries to combine brain and brawn, defensive coordinator Keith Butler would be the one.

Shazier, one of four first-round draft choices manning the Steelers' linebacker positions, has been making the defensive calls since about midway through the season.

Butler acknowledged that's a load of responsibility for Shazier, 23, a two-year veteran who got the job from nine-year veteran linebacker Lawrence Timmons in the middle of the season.

“It's hard to do,” said Butler, who played linebacker for 10 seasons for the Seattle Seahawks. “I did it for five years, but I had five years in the league before I started doing it.

“A lot of people are depending on you to make the correct call, get the defense in the right defense. There's a lot of pressure to it. He's doing a better job of it as the year goes along.”

Holes continually popped up in the Steelers defense this season, reaching a perilous level Dec. 20 in the first half against the Denver Broncos, the opponent and host Sunday in an AFC divisional playoff game. The Broncos scored 27 points before halftime, forcing the Steelers to record their largest comeback (17 points) in 18 years to win 34-27.

Butler said there was “a little bit” of confusion.

“We tried to prep our guys that it was going to be up-tempo, and it was was up-tempo, and we were a little bit late in the calls and sometimes we were not on the same page,” he said. “We got that straightened out, and those guys were playing real well in the second half.”

After that, the Steelers didn't allow more than 20 points in any of the next three games.

“I'm proud of them,” Butler said. “We're not always a great defense, but they do a lot of great things a lot of times.”

Part of that can be attributed to veteran linebacker James Harrison's guiding hand.

“I think they listen to him a little bit in terms of what it takes to get to where we want to go,” Butler said.

But the contributions of Shazier and rookie Bud Dupree, two of the more athletically gifted players on the defense, can't be minimized.

Shazier finished second on the team in tackles in the regular season (87) while recording a variety of big plays, including 10 tackles for a loss, 3½ sacks, one interception, eight quarterback hits, four passes defended, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. Not included on that list is the reason the Steelers are alive in the postseason, his forced fumble by Cincinnati Bengals running back Jeremy Hill in the wild-card victory.

Dupree has only four sacks, but that figure is third among Steelers rookies since 1982.

“He's still got a lot to learn,” Butler said.

Butler, a first-year coordinator, has made some adjustments to the defense that he said have helped.

The key Sunday will be stopping the Broncos' running game and forcing soon-to-be 40-year-old quarterback Peyton Manning to throw. Maybe a growing familiarity between the coordinator and his players is helping.

“I feel (Butler) is trusting us more,” linebacker Arthur Moats said. “And we're trusting him more because we've had a whole season together.”

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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