PITTSBURGH (AP) — The Pittsburgh Steelers finished outside the top 10 in total defense last year for the first time this century, thanks in part to a toothless pass rush that registered just 34 sacks and a series of missed tackles that turned small plays into big ones.
The Steelers believe the path back to the top begins with Ryan Shazier.
Pittsburgh selected the speedy linebacker from Ohio State with the 15th pick of the NFL draft on Thursday night, won over by Shazier's blazing quickness and his ability to find the ball and slam whoever is holding it to the ground.
"What we needed was a defensive playmaker and he fits the bill in that regard," coach Mike Tomlin said.
While the Steelers have needs at other positions like cornerback and wide receiver, general manager Kevin Colbert couldn't resist the chance to get one of only 10 players in Ohio State history to lead the Buckeyes in tackles in consecutive seasons.
"We're well aware of who we have on our team, but when you can add a player of quality, it will override need every time," Colbert said.
Besides, Pittsburgh isn't exactly overflowing with experience in the middle of their 3-4 defense next to Lawrence Timmons, who spent most of 2013 playing alongside rookie sixth-round pick Vince Williams and journeyman free agent Kion Wilson after Larry Foote went down in the opener with a triceps injury.
Foote is now in Arizona after being released and while former third-round pick Sean Spence continues his rehab from a gruesome left knee injury that has forced him to miss the last two years, there's no guarantee he'll return.
Enter Shazier, who posted a time of 4.40 seconds in the 40-yard dash at Ohio State's Pro Day.
"This guy can flat out run," Colbert said. "The thing that really attracts me to him from a defensive standpoint ... we need speed. You need speed at your linebackers, need speed in your secondary, you need speed everywhere."
When let loose by Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, Shazier finished with six sacks for the Buckeyes last year. Tomlin stopped short of saying Shazier will do the same in Pittsburgh but allowed his quickness gives defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau plenty of "options" when it comes to sub packages.
The 21-year-old Shazier also makes a defense in the midst of a generational shift even younger. At 6-foot-1 and 237-pounds, he's small but doesn't think he needs to bulk up to make the same kind of impact he did with the Buckeyes, where he finished with 315 tackles in 39 career games.
"I don't feel I have to get bigger," Shazier said. "They say my weight is perfectly fine."
It wasn't an issue in college. Shazier was a two-time All-Big Ten selection for the Buckeyes and was a first-team All-American and a finalist for the Butkus Award during his senior year in 2013.
This is the second straight year Pittsburgh has taken a linebacker in the first round. Jarvis Jones finished with one sack but improved as the season went along last fall. Jones is now an entrenched starter and considering the lack of competition the pressure will be on Shazier to do the same when camp opens in July.
"He's a guy that is capable of being on his feet, making sideline to sideline," Tomlin said. "He's got no holes. He's a football lover."
One that admits he was a little surprised when he heard his name called by Commissioner Roger Goodell. Shazier visited with Pittsburgh during the run-up to the draft but didn't really consider the Steelers an option.
"I did not see that coming at all," Shazier said.
Not that he's complaining. He gets to learn alongside one of the steadiest players in the league in Timmons under a Hall of Fame coordinator who has a knack for turning linebackers into stars.
Shazier isn't well-versed in LeBeau's scheme but knows the Steelers didn't exactly look like the Steelers in 2013. Shazier understands the team wants to "get back to the old ways."
Even as his new team adopts to new ones.
"(As) offenses continue to spread out, you need speed," Colbert said. "You need speed at linebacker, your secondary. You need speed everywhere. This kid has unique ability to make plays not only at him, but laterally as well. Most of those plays are tackles for losses and we're super excited that he was there for us."