A funny thing happened in Ryan Shazier’s return to the lineup last week against New England. Instead of playing every snap as he typically would when he’s completely healthy (OK, so that’s only happened once so far this season – insert your snide Beau Bennett-style joke here), Shazier generally rotated defensive series in and out with veteran backup Vince Williams.
Against the Patriots, Shazier played 56 percent of the Steelers’ 57 defensive snaps (32) while Williams played the other 44 percent (25 snaps). Williams even started the game and got the first turn.
Shazier said after the game that he wasn’t given a “snap count” to adhere to, and that he wasn’t held back by any health issues (be it the knee that kept him out the previous 3 ½ games, or any other ailment he’s been dealing with during his injury-riddled three NFL seasons). “The coaches just decided that they wanted to rotate us, so that’s what we did,” Shazier said.
Two days later, defensive coordinator Keith Butler didn’t dispute, when asked, that the Steelers would continue to play both Williams and Shazier – and he even suggested another linebacker would be added to the rotation.
“We might be playing all three of them,” Butler said this week. “Shazier, Vince and….”
Butler stopped, perhaps catching himself.
“We’ll see what goes on at the end of the week.”
Presumably, Butler wasn’t suggesting the Steelers would begin to utilize a THREE-man share of playing time at the “Mack” inside linebacker spot. Sure, in theory, Butler could have been about to say that Tyler Matakevich, L.J. Fort or Steven Johnson (heck, all three?!) would slide in, too, along with Williams in lieu of Shazier.
But no, much more likely, Butler was intimating that the “Buck” position would be included in a future timeshare. That would pull Lawrence Timmons into the, well, “mix” mix.
Against the Patriots, Timmons played 54 of 57 snaps. But in his 10th NFL season and now in his 30s – and, perhaps most importantly, in the final year of his contract – Timmons has ever-so-slightly been gradually marginalized in terms of playing time.
It began late last season after he was the last man standing among NFL linebackers who had played every snap of the season heading into the Steelers’ Week 14 game at Cincinnati. It was there that the Steelers unveiled a dime package in which safety Robert Golden came onto the field to replace Timmons.
This season, that continued – the Steelers preferring to keep Shazier on in passing downs instead of Timmons when one of the two ILBs was removed. That only makes sense, what with Timmons – while still more than capable and athletic, even by NFL standards – not quite having the same burst he had when he was younger. Also, Shazier, bar none, is almost assuredly the fastest linebacker in the NFL.
Odds are, the Steelers spelling Shazier last Sunday likely came down to three factors: One, being a month removed from game action, a desire to gradually get Shazier’s conditioning back into game-shape. Two, a level of trust in Williams, who filled in capably while Shazier was out. And three, a nod to the future, looking at the contract statuses of Williams and Timmons.
Timmons has the highest salary-cap hit ($15 million-plus) of any Steelers defensive player in 2016 – and he’s a free agent at the end of the season. Williams, meanwhile, during training camp signed a three-year extension that runs through the 2018 season. The deal carries a modest cap hit for a starter ($2.5 million); a sizeable one for a backup.
In short, as things stand now (and PLENTY can change before the start of the 2017 campaign), Williams seems penciled in to replace Timmons. So, it’d be only natural, not only in a nod to that future but also in recognition of Williams’ diverse skills and as a way of preserving Shazier, that the Steelers rotate Williams in at both inside linebacker spots going forward.