In the summer of 2014, I sat on the hill at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania with hundreds of Steelers fans, while we studied our team working out on the field. I was excited about that season's draft class (more so than I usually am), and I couldn't wait to be one of the very first to see new blood in their white and yellow practice jerseys.
To this day, the one thing that stood out to me during training camp that year was the utter dominance of linebacker Ryan Shazier. During one-on-one drills, he was nearly untouched as he used his quickness and agility to ease his way past the blocker. In team scrimmages, he was even better: using outstanding speed and burst to knife through the offensive line and make plays.
Shazier ended up winning the starting job outright during camp. I knew it was only a matter of time before he would explode onto the scene as one of the next great linebackers on a franchise that has been abundantly rich at the position.
His day came at the end of his second season.
Shazier was banged up for much of his first two seasons, causing him to miss 11 games over a two-year span. However, on January 9th, 2016, Ryan Shazier finally showed no signs of being hampered by injury.
Play after play, Shazier completely and single-handedly halted the Bengals offense in the wildcard playoff game. He recorded 13 tackles (nine solo), two stuffs, two pass deflections, and most importantly, two forced fumbles.
The first forced fumble came in the second half when he jarred the ball loose from Giovanni Bernard (which he actually could have scooped and scored had the official not blown the play dead).
The second came on what most thought would be the last drive of the game. The Bengals simply have to run the clock out with 1:23 left in the 4th quarter, but Ryan Shazier strips Jeremy Hill of the ball and the Steelers recover.
The rest is history.
Recently, Pro Football Focus released their top three single-game linebacker grades they have ever given out:
|Ryan Shazier||2015 Wildcard vs Bengals||99.9|
|Jamie Collins||2013 Divisional vs Colts||96.6|
|Navorro Bowman||2012 Conference vs Falcons||96.1|
If you watched the heated AFC rivals crash skulls that night (and I have at least four times now), it's easy to see why Shazier received a nearly perfect grade. Quite frankly, he was perfect that game.
Shazier was phenomenal against the run and pass, and his two forced fumbles were the only thing that even gave the Steelers a chance. It's like when you run out of quarters at an arcade, but your friend scavenges around for a few more so you can keep playing.
We all know Shazier is an incredible athlete, but really, we can just start referring to him as an incredible football player. Sure, Ryan can have his inconsistencies or have a concentration lapse in coverage from time to time. However, much like the great Troy Polamalu, Shazier can influence the game in a special way thanks to elite athleticism and play-making ability.
Shazier's dominant performance against the Bengals back in the 2015 playoffs allowed the Steelers to live to fight another day. It's not a performance I will soon forget, and neither should the rest of Steelers Nation.