Steelers' young linebackers on rise
PITTSBURGH — The comparisons are unavoidable. It comes with the territory when you're a linebacker and the Pittsburgh Steelers draft you in the first round.
And as much as Bud Dupree, Ryan Shazier and Jarvis Jones — all taken in the opening round over the last three years, all tasked with building upon a legacy strewn with Hall-of-Famers and Pro Bowlers — try to downplay the expectations, they know they can't outrun them.
"You feel it," said Dupree, taken with the 22nd overall pick last spring. "But you just try to be patient."
Not always the easiest thing to do, particularly at a place dubbed "Linebacker U" by assistant coach Joey Porter, who knows about serving as the nerve center of Pittsburgh's evolving 3-4 defense. If the Steelerswere going to create the kind of chaos they've lacked in recent years, they needed their young core to grow up quickly.
The learning curve appears to be leveling off. Shazier, Dupree and Jones were right in the middle of Pittsburgh's frenetic 18-16 win over Cincinnati last Saturday.
Shazier finished with 13 tackles, a pair of forced fumbles — including the strip on Jeremy Hill that gave theSteelers one last shot — and a brutal but apparently not illegal shot on Bengals running back Gio Bernard that seemed to shift the game's tone from aggressive to even more primal. Jones put together a strip sack that set up a field goal while Dupree was a presence in the Cincinnati backfield.
"Those guys have played well for us and they need to continue to do that," defensive coordinator Keith Butler said.
Different challenge: Denver and Peyton Manning, drafted while all three linebackers were in elementary school, offer a starkly different challenge in Sunday's divisional round. Make no mistake, the Broncos watched Shazier and company create their own brand of youthful havoc.
"You watch (Shazier), he's smart, he never quits," Denver tight end Virgil Green said. "Watching that game last week, he could have easily given up in that 4-minute situation but he's going for the ball."
Yet for how explosive Shazier and his two good friends looked in Cincinnati, he understands they're still learning consistency. It's the dividing line between good and special.
"If you have good games, continue to back it up and make sure your teammates can depend on you," Shazier said. "If you do something one week, do it the next."
It's a painful lesson both Shazier and Jones have been forced to learn. Jones missed more than half of 2014 with broken wrist — one endured while sacking Cam Newton — while Shazier has pogoed between the starting lineup and the trainer's room for much of his two years in the league. The 15th overall pick in the 2014 draft was brilliant against San Francisco in September only to complain of a "linebacker injury" late in the game.
Shazier faces criticism: Shazier called it no big deal at the time only to have the stinger in his shoulder force him to sit out a month and fed the criticism that for all of his remarkable speed, at 6-foot-1 and 220ish pounds Shazier is too small for the rigors of taking on larger offensive linemen.
His older teammates told him to take care of his body, well aware of the immense talent hidden within.
"When he's able to be out on the field, he's a dominant force," said linebacker Arthur Moats.
Butler felt confident enough in Shazier's development to put him in charge of making all the defensive calls.
The transition hasn't always been easy. Shazier was slow to relay information during the first meeting with Denver in December, mistakes the Broncos turned into touchdowns while racing to a 17-point lead.
"I got the calls in a little later and it hurt us," Shazier said. "I put that on me."
When he calmed down, Pittsburgh's defense was remarkably better. So were the Steelers as they rallied for a 34-27 win. Another slow start is not recommended on the road against Manning, even if he's no longer at the height of his powers.
Respectful, not fearful: Shazier is respectful but not fearful. He's well aware of what the Pittsburgh defense is supposed to do this time of year, thanks to growing up in Ohio the son of a Steelers fan.
"Any type of linebacker, you want to be good in your craft, you're going to know about Jack Lambert, Jack Ham and those guys," Shazier said.
And in case he, Dupree or Jones ever need a reminder, Porter or James Harrison — still going at 38 — are only too happy to provide one.
"I feel like all of us is going to be great and live up to the legacy and switch it up," Dupree said. "It's going to be an exciting time for the time we're here."