By ANDY BENOIT
December 11, 2017
Little has been said about what Ryan Shazier’s absence means for Pittsburgh on the field. And rightfully so; football is so trivial when juxtaposed with Shazier’s current reality that even writing this sort of analytical article feels uncomfortable.
And yet, there’s still a season to play. And the Steelers are still contenders. And Shazier, even if it’s lower on his priority list now than at this time last week, still cares how the Steelers finish. After Sunday night’s shootout victory over Baltimore, the 25-year-old linebacker joined his teammates’ revelry via FaceTime.
That revelry won’t repeat often if tweaks aren’t made. The hard truth: Pittsburgh’s defense is gargantuanly weaker without Shazier, a potential first-team All-Pro linebacker. Last Monday night, the Steelers gave up 130 rushing yards to a bad Bengals ground attack that was mostly minus its best component, running back Joe Mixon. Cincy simply spread out and ran inside zone again and again. Sunday night, the Ravens rushed for 152 yards against Pittsburgh, as running back Alex Collins bounced outside and turned the corner again and again. Normally, Shazier rocketing around that corner.
Shazier is the most explosive, dynamic stack linebacker in football. Sometimes his aggression creates big plays for the offense, but usually it just makes them for the defense. The Steelers still have a D-line, but telling Javon Hargrave, Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Heyward to step up, or T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree to elevate their play on the edges, isn’t enough. Those guys are already playing great. Someone still must make the plays behind them. So far, no one has.
It will take two men to replace Shazier, and that’s not referring to rotating Sean Spence and Arthur Moats, subpar fill-ins who are splitting duties alongside stalwart starter Vince Williams. You need two men as in Spence or Moats and an extra body in the box. Most likely, that’d be versatile second-year safety Sean Davis.
This past summer, Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler talked about the importance of playing more man coverage. “We can’t always play zone, especially against people like the Patriots”, Butler said on Pittsburgh’s 93.7 The Fan. “You look at the people who have beaten the Patriots in the past and a lot of them played man-to-man. I think the last time we beat them [in 2011] we were playing a lot of man-to-man coverage.”
In last year’s AFC title game, the Patriots spread out and picked apart the Steelers’ widened zones with receivers Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan inside. That was with Shazier on the field. You can bet that prepping for the crucial Week 15 showdown, the Patriots are giddy to spread out and match receivers against Spence and Moats (or, if it’s an obvious passing situation, linebacker L.J. Fort).
Now is the time for Butler—who has done a great job calling matchup zones this season including on blitzes - to follow through on the man coverage plans. To stop New England's multifaceted ground game (which is a much bigger part of that offense than people realize), the Steelers must bring an extra defender into the box. The downside is this leaves more space outside. More space means wider zones, which was the problem in last year’s AFC championship. A defense’s counter is to press.
Of course, this is easier said than done. In man coverage, your players still have to win against their man. To be ready for this moment, the Steelers signed Joe Haden in late summer. But Haden has been out since fracturing his leg on November 12. If he doesn’t return this Sunday, Pittsburgh has a problem. Second-year corner Artie Burns has had a stellar season on the right side, but on the left, Coty Sensabaugh has been erratic, and the team knows little about the man who has taken some of Sensabaugh’s snaps, third-round rookie Cameron Sutton (Sunday against Baltimore was Sutton’s second NFL game). All it takes to fell man coverage is one weak link.
The alternative, though, is zone, where a weak link in the middle of your defense can result in failure like what we’ve seen. It doesn’t have to be lockdown man coverage, just physical man coverage. Beat New England’s receivers at the snap and Tom Brady must hold the ball. That gets precarious against a Steelers five-man rush that’s much stronger than when these teams met a year ago.
That five-man rush is much weaker than it was a month ago now that it’s best interior blitzer is gone. And so is the man coverage overall, for that matter, given that the super blitzer was also the only defender with enough athleticism to cover detached running backs like James White and Rex Burkhead. And when Shazier wasn’t bogging down in a man matchup, he served as a terrifying middle-field patroller.
Maybe Pittsburgh’s plan needs to just be what it wound up being against Baltimore: Give the ball to Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell and hope to score around 40 points. Because the more you think about Shazier’s on-field impact, the more ominous his absence appears. Of course, the more you think about Shazier’s off-field world, the less you the on-field stuff seems to matter.