Tim Benz: For Steelers, anyone and everyone must help replace Ryan Shazier
It's our final installment of "Stairway to Seven." Seven Steelers in seven days who could elevate the team from what they were a year ago to a potential seventh Super Bowl championship.
Not the Killer B's. Not Cam Heyward. Not the standout offensive line. Players who can be positive variables. Guys that can help close the gap between the Steelers and another title which has eluded them for a decade now.
If Ryan Shazier had never been hurt, I may have put him on this list. I likely would have said Shazier could've been one of those players responsible for tilting the Steelers from a good also-ran to a Super Bowl winner.
"If Shazier could elevate his Pro Bowl caliber play to that of a dominant inside linebacker, maybe that could be the difference between the 2017 Steelers coming up short and the 2018 Steelers finishing the job."
Then again, if Shazier had never been hurt, maybe he comes up with a play or two on defense that prevents the Steelers from losing to Jacksonville in the playoffs. Instead, Stairway to Seven would've just been: "Seven Ways the Steelers could finally beat the Patriots and make the Super Bowl."
Sadly, we'll never know. Sadly we won't get to see Shazier improve to those lofty individual heights in 2018.
In fact, it may not be "an individual" to replace him. That's why our last featured player on "Stairway to Seven" isn't a specific player at all. It's a collective. It's anyone and everyone the Steelers try to throw at the problem of replacing Ryan Shazier at inside linebacker.
That's the biggest improvement that needs to be made for the Steelers to improve upon where they ended up last year. That's the biggest variable impacting what they can be in 2018.
The defense had its problems when Shazier was still healthy. Those problems got exposed once he got hurt. That trend can't be entirely pinned on Shazier's absence. But taking away his athletic presence acted like removing a giant eraser for other mistakes that went on around him.
So now, what do the Steelers do about it? In the past, we've written about Tyler Matakevich and Jon Bostic battling it out to be a legitimate replacement for Shazier . We've talked about Vince Williams improving on a surprising 2017. We've discussed deploying numerous safeties all over the field to best replicate Shazier's pass-coverage ability in the middle third of the defense.
Yeah. Sure. All of that.
The old sports axiom is: "It's not how. It's how many."
In this case for Mike Tomlin's defense, it's the opposite. It doesn't matter how many people it takes to equal Ryan Shazier. It's how close can the Steelers come to accomplishing that mission.
If they wind up as far away as they did in 2017, expect 2018 to be another adventure on defense.