Shazier, Linebackers Make Headway

Historically known as the backbone of the Steelers, the linebacking corps last season was in disarray. Time is changing that.

The Steelers wrapped up minicamp with one more practice than Mike Tomlin normally allotts for his team.

Not that the players expected Tomlin to cancel the practice finale this time around.

"Not with the rookie linebacker," groused one veteran.

But Ryan Shazier appreciated the final day of work as his preparation to start the opener continued.

"Every day gets you better," said Shazier, the Steelers' first-round pick. "No matter what you're doing, no matter what you learn, I feel like every day gets you better. And the more experience I get with LT (Lawrence Timmons), the more chemistry we're going to get."

Chemistry is the concern of linebackers coach Keith Butler. He used Jarvis Jones, last year's first-round rookie starter, as an example of how it can go so wrong.

"Jarvis was running around last year like a chicken with his head cut off," said Butler. "He'd be asking 'What do I do? What do I do?' and the ball's snapped. At the time he didn't know what to do. That's the reason I don't like to start rookies. They don't know what to do -- most of the time. Shazier might be the exception to the rule."

That's the hope, because Shazier has become the key to a complete revamping of a unit that has historically been the backbone of not only the defense but of the team. Every Super Bowl team the Steelers ever fielded had two linebackers named to the same Pro Bowl either that season or the one preceding the Super Bowl season.

But the Steelers haven't had even one Pro Bowl linebacker since the 2011 season. And last year the defense declined to the degree that it allowed its most yards per carry (4.3) since 1999, compiled its fewest sacks (34) since 1990, and allowed its most points (370) since 1988.

The backbone clearly needed an adjustment.

"We need to be better," said Butler, the linebackers coach since 2003. "Losing Larry Foote really hurt us."

Another rookie, Vince Williams, replaced Foote, with Timmons calling the signs from the mack -- or weak-side -- inside linebacker spot.

"Lawrence got used to it as the year went along and our guys started to learn the defense," Butler said.

Butler, though, prefers the other inside backer, the buck, to make the calls. That didn't become an option for Timmons until Shazier came along.

"We didn't know we were going to draft Shazier," Butler said. "He was still on the board. We had to take him. We had a lot of people on the board we had him rated high, and everybody had been taken except for him. When we figured out we were going to take him, that's when we decided to move Lawrence over. If we had not taken him, would we have moved Lawrence over? I don't know. It's hard to say."

Butler expects the usual from high-level performance from Timmons this season, and he expects a little more from LOLB Jason Worilds and a lot more from ROLB Jones in his second year. Again, the question mark is Shazier, and it has nothing to do with the rookie's physical skills. Shazier's a big reason why Butler calls this "the fastest defense we've had since I've been here."

The concern, instead, is Shazier's understanding of the defense.

"I feel I can learn it," said Shazier. "I have a lot of older players around me who really know the defense and who are really trying to help out a lot. I have just people in general trying to help out, and I go to the hotel, watch film, and go over the plays a lot myself. I want to learn the defense to help this team as much as I can."

Tomlin called Shazier "a football junkie" on draft day. Shazier said that's an apt description.

"My dad used to be a coach in high school," he said. "And, yeah, I do like watching a lot of film. Even when I watch regular games I analyze the film. It's just something I can't help but doing. After practice I'll watch film. I watch as much as possible."

When he was a kid growing up in Florida, Shazier watched as many Steelers games as possible. His dad, the defensive coordinator, was a Steelers fan so Shazier came to appreciate players such as Farrior, Harrison and Joey Porter. Therefore, Shazier understands the team's history.

"We all understand that the linebacker is the middle of the defense and it gets the defense going," he said. "We're trying to get back to that. We're trying to make sure our defense gets back to where we got to go, try to get us back to where we've been in the past, and that's championships. We've got to start off with the linebacking corps. We all need to learn as much as possible and do the best we can in practices so we can get everything going."

Class will resume in five weeks.

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