August 07, 2016

LATROBE, Pa. (AP) Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier's top goal this season is to stay healthy.

Shazier took another step forward in his development during his second NFL season in 2015, though injuries remain a concern. If Shazier can stay on the field for an improving Steelers defense, the former first-round pick figures the rest will fall into place.

''The more you're on the field, the better you get,'' Shazier said. ''My teammates will trust me in certain situations when I'm on the field, they'll know I can do certain things and I'll have confidence, too.

''The more I'm on the field, the more confidence I have and I'll feel like I can do anything.''

Shazier flashed that first-round, big-play ability during last season's AFC wild-card game at Cincinnati. He led the defense with a single-game playoff high 13 tackles and finished with his first career postseason fumble recovery. Shazier also forced two fumbles, including a devastating third-quarter hit on Giovani Bernard and a critical late-game takeaway of Jeremy Hill that led to the winning field goal.

''You just have to have confidence in yourself, especially after last year,'' Shazier said. ''I started playing better and started having more confidence in myself. I'm a major competitor. I hate losing and I'm going to do whatever I have to do to win.''

The Steelers liked Shazier's 4.4 speed and sideline-to-sideline playmaking abilities when they selected the 6-foot-1, 230-pound linebacker No. 15 overall in the 2014 draft.

The former Ohio State standout made 12 regular-season starts in 2015 and finished second on the team with 87 tackles, 3 1/2 sacks, four passes defensed and a pair of forced fumbles.

But Shazier struggled to stay healthy, missing four games early in the season with a right shoulder injury before playing the final 12 games. Shazier missed all or parts of nine of the Steelers' final 14 games during his rookie season.

''He has to stay healthy,'' defensive coordinator Keith Butler said. ''He has to be on the field. That's the biggest thing for him. If he stays on the field, he'll be productive. He'll be what I think we envisioned him to be.''

Shazier definitely feels as if he's stronger and he has a better understanding of the things he needs to do, regarding diet and weight training to preserve his body for the rigors of an NFL season. He's also evolving as a leader on the defense and progressing as a defensive signal caller, a job he took over full time last season.

''The more you do it, the more comfortable you get,'' Shazier said.

Shazier looks just as comfortable on the field during training camp practices at St. Vincent College, particularly his pass-rushing versatility. Shazier used his speed during a backs-on-backers blitz pickup drill, while also utilizing a swim move and brute force in another instance as he flattened one defender.

Butler is excited at Shazier's potential as a blitzing linebacker from the inside.

''He can rush the passer, he can slip them and he can run over them,'' Butler said. ''If you're a running back, you don't know what he's going to do.''

Shazier just wants to stay on the field. If he can stay healthy, the possibilities are endless.

''I definitely felt like the way I played last year helped me gain confidence,'' Shazier said. ''I feel like my understanding of the playbook and my team having confidence in me is going to help me get to the next level.''

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