Shazier Rises Up

Ryan Shazier (Getty Images)

Ryan Shazier made an interception today that most likely sewed up his spot as a rookie starter in the Steelers' defense.

Ryan Shazier was drafted in the first round this year and installed as the Steelers' first-team mack inside linebacker on the first day of spring practice.

It was believed the only thing to stop Shazier from becoming the first rookie defender to start here on opening day since Kendrell Bell started at the same position in 2001 was for the more knowledgeable Sean Spence to make an astonishing recovery from knee and nerve damage.

Well, Spence has done that.

But don't look for Shazier to relinquish his spot any time soon. Not after the interception he made during OTA No. 9. Even Shazier admitted that "it was really good."

Although Shazier didn't have a receiver in his area, he dropped into zone coverage against quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, who lofted the ball for a target further down the field. But Shazier used every bit of his 42-inch vertical jump to rise up and intercept the pass.

It's an image that will be difficult, if not impossible, for Steelers coaches to forget. It crystallized the fact that even if Shazier has a difficult time learning the defense, he can obviously make plays.

"I read the quarterback's eyes," Shazier explained. "I knew he thought he would be able to get it over me. I just jumped up and did what I could."

Shazier displayed some versatility later in the practice when he lined up at cornerback over Antonio Brown. Even though Shazier was only there to jam and release, he wouldn't discount cornerback from his repertoire.

"You never know with Coach (Dick) LeBeau," Shazier said. "He can call anything. Maybe one play I might be on Antonio Brown; next play I might be on Le'Veon (Bell); next play I might be on Heath (Miller). Whatever he wants me and the defense to do, I'll give it 100 percent."

LeBeau can do all of that with a linebacker who ran a 4.40 40 for the Steelers, who led all combine athletes with that 42-inch vertical, and who has the kind of hands that can pluck a pass out of the sky after putting all of that athleticism and explosiveness together.

So, why hasn't Shazier played wide receiver in the past?

"I just feel I'm more of an attack type of guy," he said. "Some receivers are attack guys, too, but I'd rather give a hit than take a hit.

"I just love defense," he added. "My dad was a defensive coordinator in high school and I always grew up on the defensive side. Everybody in my family played defense. Going out there to play linebacker is just amazing."

Doing it on the opening day of his professional career would be pretty amazing, too, particularly under LeBeau. Bell, of course, broke in with Tim Lewis as his defensive coordinator.

Shazier was asked how he would rate his play this spring on a scale of 1 to 10.

"A 5 or a 6," he said. "At the beginning of OTAs I was a 2 or a 3. Now I'm getting more comfortable, and comfortable talking to the guys and communicating. I feel it's going to help us become a great defense."

If he keeps making plays like the one he made Wednesday, there's no doubting it.

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