Tim Benz: Steelers can't replace Ryan Shazier. Here's what they will do.
Ryan Shazier's news conference last week flooded the internet with uplifting headlines:
• He needs only one cane to walk now.
• He won't rule out a return to football.
• In his words, out of every 100 days, “95 of them are good.”
With all those positive vibes out there, it was actually pleasant to have a reason to bury an unfortunate reality that still exists: No. 50 won't be on the field this season in Pittsburgh.
That said, Shazier endorsed the Steelers' plan to replace him for 2018 as he recovers from a spine injury. He spoke highly of his backups, Tyler Matakevich and L.J. Fort, as well as new signee Jon Bostic.
“I feel like they are doing a really good job,” Shazier said Wednesday after practice. “From the moment Tyler was a rookie until now, we had a really good relationship. Before (the injury), he knew he could ask me questions. So he doesn't feel any different now.”
Here's one question I'd ask: “Hey, Ryan! How might it be possible to make myself as fast, rangy and wildly talented as you?”
The truth is neither Bostic, nor Fort nor Matakevich can replace Shazier entirely, particularly in pass coverage. That's why there has been so much discussion of safeties — such as Morgan Burnett and/or rookies Terrell Edmunds and Marcus Allen — filling that void.
“The game has changed to the point that now you have tight ends and running backs who are fast and athletic enough to run routes like a receiver,” Burnett said. “As a safety, or any defender on the field, you have to be versatile. I honestly think that is where the game is coming to.”
Burnett was asked if there is a point of diminishing returns when it comes to multiple players trying to learn multiple positions.
“Pre-snap, during the snap and post-snap,” he said, “so long as you communicate, that'll clean things up.”
In recent seasons, there has been a lot of “post-snap communication.” It often went like this:
Steelers Defender X: “I thought you had Gronk.”
Steelers Defender Y: “No, I thought you had Gronk.”
Steelers Defender Z: “OK, does anyone know who has Gronk on this next play?”
With so many new players learning so many new jobs — or, more to the point, so many players trying to learn Shazier's job — it's hard to imagine those issues dissipating this year.
There's a difference between seeing what the Steelers are trying to do when it comes to replacing Ryan Shazier and what they would prefer.
They would prefer to have an inside linebacker who is as close to a reasonable facsimile of Shazier's skill set as possible. That why the Steelers would've liked to trade up for Alabama linebacker Rashaan Evans in this spring's draft.
When that didn't happen, this “Plan B” approach came together. Have Matakevich and Bostic fight it out for a starting role in a traditional “base” run-stopping capacity. Then lean heavily on extra safety play in sub-package football.
At first, Matakevich was the camp darling the “Twitterati” were wringing their hands over when it came to the notion of exposing him on cut-down day after his 2016 rookie camp.
Then he became the special teams overachiever people wanted to see play more often.
Now, he could be a starter, and suddenly everybody is scared to death that he isn't good enough.
When Matakevich's opportunity to shine came in place of Shazier last year, he couldn't show off his skills effectively because his already-injured shoulder got badly exacerbated in that same game in Cincinnati when Shazier got hurt.
He missed the next game against Baltimore but then grinded through the rest of the season.
“I already knew going in (to Cincinnati) that I had a bad wing,” Matakevich said Wednesday. “I knew it was going to come out. I just didn't know if it was going to be the first series or the last series. Unfortunately, it was the third quarter.
“It was a tough thing to swallow. You know you are going to get a chance. But you can't do anything. But it's all healed up now.”
Whether it's Matakevich at 100 percent, Bostic being a better fit here than with his other teams, L.J. Fort ascending to a regular contributor or a fistful of safeties combining to get the job done, the Steelers need to patch over the cannonball-sized hole next to Vince Williams.
Let's be honest: Unless the Steelers get more aggressive on the free agent market if another Mychal Kendricks-type becomes available, patching over is the best thing they can try at this point.
Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH.