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Steelers LB Ryan Shazier stays positive during injury-hampered camp

Joe Rutter
| Saturday, Aug. 19, 2017, 8:33 p.m.
Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier returns to practice Friday, Aug.18, 2017 at Greater Latrobe High School.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier returns to practice Friday, Aug.18, 2017 at Greater Latrobe High School.

With Lawrence Timmons gone and Vince Williams replacing him at inside linebacker, Williams and Ryan Shazier searched for a nickname to appropriately describe the new Steelers inside linebacker tandem.

They came up with "Shake and Bake" and even cut a team-produced video to introduce the moniker to fans.

Shazier is "Shake" because he's "swifty" and "shaking around" with his speed and athleticism on the field. Williams is "Bake" because of the way he drops — or bakes — runners and receivers with authoritative tackles.

It's a cute title, albeit a not entirely accurate one during training camp. Because, with apologies to the catchy song lyrics, there hasn't been a whole lot of shakin' going on.

Shazier's history of injuries resurfaced when he missed nearly two weeks of practice because of what he called a slight hamstring pull. The fourth-year pro returned in a limited capacity Friday, working with the scout team, but will not play Sunday in the Steelers' second preseason game.

For a player who completed just 17 of his first 38 regular-season games before finding some continuity in the second half last season, it was a frustrating setback.

"You get down on yourself and it kind of (stinks) when you go through those type of things," Shazier said. "You just know you have to have a great mindset, have a great team around you and just try to stay focused and not get away from your game.

"If you get away from your game, that can cause you to get down on yourself. I've got a good group around me to help me stay focused."

That group includes Williams, one of Shazier's closest friends on the team. Entering his fifth season, Williams was anointed the starter at right inside linebacker after Timmons signed with the Miami Dolphins in March.

The duo practiced together during organized team activities and minicamp, yet didn't get time to mesh during the three weeks spent at St. Vincent in Latrobe. Williams missed the first few practices with a "soft-tissue" injury. When he returned, Shazier injured his hamstring.

Shazier, who said he has yet to make a tackle in camp, doesn't think it will take long for he and Williams to get in sync, even if just two preseason games remain before the Sept. 10 season opener in Cleveland.

"I feel really comfortable with Vince," Shazier said Friday. "Even when were in there doing a little bit of the card (scout-team) reps, it felt really good. We always hang out a lot, and we talk football all the time.

"You're going to need reps out there on the field with your partner, but I don't feel like I need as many reps as I need before."

Coach Mike Tomlin also isn't concerned about any perceived lack of cohesion between the inside linebackers.

"We logged probably 1,000 snaps in the spring," he said. "There is a cumulative effect there, and guys play a lot of ball. They should be able to catch up."

Shazier came the closest to catching up to his first-round draft potential last season when he was selected to the Pro Bowl for the first time. Despite missing three games in the first half because of a right knee injury, Shazier returned to start the final 12 games, including postseason. He finished with 87 tackles, 31⁄2 sacks and three interceptions.

His play against the Baltimore Ravens on Christmas Day helped the Steelers win the AFC North title when he had 10 tackles and an interception. He had two more interceptions and 18 tackles in three postseason games.

Shazier showed enough the Steelers were quick to exercise the fifth-year option on his rookie contract, something they didn't do with another former first-round pick, Jarvis Jones, a year earlier. It will provide Shazier an $8.7 million salary in 2018 and be money well earned if he can remain healthy.

Shazier's leadership and handling of calling the defensive signals have rubbed off on younger teammates.

"I talk to him every day and focus on the stuff he does out there," said second-year inside linebacker Tyler Matakevich, who has filled Shazier's starting spot during camp. "It's truly amazing. That's the stuff I appreciate, being able to watch him and see him do something.

"If I have a question, I ask Shay, 'How would you do this play? What are you seeing, what are your reads? Stuff like that.' He's so helpful. Being able to understand, learn, take a step back and listen to what he — and Vince — are saying has helped me tremendously."

Shazier had three seasons to adapt to Timmons' tendencies and build a rapport with his linebacking partner. Because Williams has been with the Steelers since 2013, Shazier doesn't think there will be a drop-off in chemistry.

"Vince and I have been really close since I've been in the NFL," Shazier said. "We hang out together all the time and we watch a lot of film together. He's definitely helped me out a lot in my growing process in the NFL, and I think it's going to be great with us both out there because we tend to think a lot of the same things."

One common ground is a choice in movies. The "Shake and Bake" nickname is a nod to the Will Ferrell comedy "Talladega Nights." In the promotional video that introduced their nickname, Shazier and Williams played their parts to perfection.

Now, it's a matter of Shazier staying on the field consistently — just like he did for the second half of the 2016 season. The player known for shedding his jersey and baring his chest during warmups realizes he needs to wear his No. 50 all season if he wants to shake up the NFL.

"I just have to continue to grow," Shazier said. "I felt like I had a pretty good season, but it wasn't the season that I wanted. I had really high expectations for myself, so I'm just looking forward to this year and just continue to have a healthy season and show everybody why the Steelers drafted me in the first place."

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