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Steelers' Ryan Shazier embraced 'chess match' of pass coverage

PITTSBURGH -- This is the football evolution the Pittsburgh Steelers envisioned when they selected Ryan Shazier 15th overall in the 2014 draft: an athlete with near-teleportation range thriving off instincts and detailed scouting.

Shazier believes he's living in that space right now when it comes to pass coverage, and he has five interceptions in his last nine regular-season games to validate that belief. Jaguars coach Doug Marrone says Shazier is playing "as well as any linebacker in the league right now."

"I try to make a play every play," Shazier said.

Shazier's team-leading 37 tackles aren't exactly surprising. Chasing down ball carriers was a strength of his coming out of Ohio State. He's one of the fastest Steelers regardless of position, which married ideally with the Steelers' zone concepts. But his man coverage and assignment discipline needed work, a trajectory that was stunted by injuries early in his career. He'll suffer the occasional lapse in run support.

But Shazier has proved that his play improves as he stays healthy, which he has been since the second half of last season. His preseason interception against the Colts was one of five in a six-game stretch dating back to last year. On Sunday in Baltimore, Shazier was constantly in QB Joe Flacco's vision for four pass deflections and a fourth-quarter interception.

How did Shazier get here? He said viewing the game through the prism of pass coverage revealed new dimensions.

"I started asking DBs questions about things," Shazier said. "We just talk about the route concepts, getting a better idea what the team likes to do in the passing game instead of [just] knowing what they are doing in the running game. It gave me a bigger perspective of what certain formations they might run, allows me to be in better position."

Veterans William Gay and Mike Mitchell kept Shazier's ear. He found a deeper grasp of the Steelers' man and zone coverages, which he now believes he can play with equal fervor.

He'll watch film to detect an offense's tells, but mostly he's trying to avoid getting played.

"It's more times the quarterback trying to bait you," said Shazier, who worked to improve his leadership this offseason. "You might be trying to read them off, and they are trying to read you off. It's a chess match. You just have to be where you need to be. You have to know your zone, know your area, respect the defense. If you stay where [you're] supposed to stay, sometimes that allows you to make plays."

Shazier embodies the versatile athlete the Steelers covet on defense. Cam Heyward can play defensive end or tackle. Sean Davis can play free or strong safety.

Early in Shazier's career, many Steelers fans wondered if he would make a better safety because of his 230-pound frame -- not huge by most linebacker standards.

There's no question about that now.

"Nah, man, I'm a linebacker," Shazier said.