FOXBORO -- Ryan Shazier’s frightening injury has created a big void in the Steelers' defense. He was the link between the front and back ends, and his speed, quickness and intelligence allowed him to stay on the field for three downs, giving Pittsburgh a necessary element of flexibility in a league where that’s key.
In their first full game without Shazier, the Steelers had to lean on three different players to do the job of one, and the results were quite concerning for the AFC North leaders. They surrendered 38 points to the Baltimore Ravens, whose quarterback, Joe Flacco, has been one of the worst players at his position this year.
“This is a game of confidence,” said Steelers defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt. “You have to go into this game knowing, ‘Hey, I belong in this position and this is what we’re going to do.’ And when you have a call sometimes and you’re going to be like ‘I know what they’re doing,’ you have to go for it.”
That clearly didn’t happen nearly enough for Pittsburgh in that one-point win. Perhaps it was the emotional letdown of knowing Shazier not only won’t be coming back this year but perhaps had his life altered by his spinal injury. You can’t dismiss that. This isn’t a player suffering an ankle, knee or shoulder injury. This is something far greater.
But it sure sounds like the message this week is to put that in the rearview mirror as best you can and -- stop me if you’ve heard this before -- do your job.
“It’s telling guys, ‘You don’t have to do more than what is asked of you,’” defensive end Cam Heyward told the gathered media earlier this week. “‘You don’t have to be Superman, we just need your best.’
“Our defense is designed for us to just do our 1/11th, guys have to understand that. Going against the best, they’ll exploit it. But if you come back at ’em and say, ‘I’m going to do my job because I trust my teammates and I expect the best out of everybody else,’ then you’re going to be successful no matter what.”
The Steelers gave up 413 yards to Baltimore, the second-highest total of year, and the 38 points allowed topped the charts. Sean Spence, Arthur Moats and L.J. Fort took turns trying to fill Shazier’s shoes, with Spence getting the most snaps. He was signed a little over a week ago, adding another layer to Pittsburgh’s challenge.
“It’s a lot harder because as guys go down and you have multiple guys stepping in, you have to be even more crisp,” said Heyward. “You have to have even more execution, and obviously we didn’t. But you have guys playing new positions, they have to understand, ‘We’re not just putting you in here just to put you in here. We’re expecting big results. We expect you to go out there and do it.’ "
Now the Steelers must face their toughest challenge yet, a Patriots offense that has scorched them year after year and will also get its best receiver, Rob Gronkowski, back from his one-game suspension for a late hit on Tre’Davious White in Buffalo.
“Gronk is not only one of the most dynamic tight ends but just one of the most dynamic players in the NFL,” said coach Mike Tomlin. “Obviously his absence is a significant one and his presence is a significant one.”
A presence the Pats may be able to exploit, considering Shazier did a fair amount of coverage work versus tight ends.
“We need more. We need better,” said Tuitt. “And I think we have the players to do it.”