Buckeyes ready to turn Shazier loose

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The athleticism speaks for itself.

The numbers make a pretty compelling case as well.

Urban Meyer has spent years looking at blitzers capable of sabotaging an offensive game plan, so he knows a wrecking-ball defender when he sees one on film.

But when the Ohio State coach puts all that together and evaluates star linebacker Ryan Shazier, something isn’t quite adding up. If the junior is among the most effective players in the country at piercing into an opponent’s backfield and racking up tackles for loss, why exactly aren't the Buckeyes letting him do that as often as possible?

“We had that conversation,” Meyer said. “I'm an offensive guy, and I think disruptive defenses are very hard to work against.

“We did have some conversation, because I think Ryan Shazier is one of the best blitzers in America. And he doesn't blitz very much.”

In the past, there have been some valid reasons for scaling Shazier back and trying to dialing down some of the aggression.

The elite speed he brings to the position is great, and it’s certainly a critical part of his success when Shazier comes around the edge with a quarterback in his sights. But unless he’s heading in the right direction, that natural ability doesn’t do much good. Ohio State first had to teach him the proper way to aim his blitzes.

His instincts are invaluable in tracking down defenders. But even by Shazier’s own estimation, that’s only 40 percent of the battle, and he’s had to spend more time both breaking down tendencies of opponents and watching his own footwork on film to help find a more consistent edge.

And while his nine tackles for loss, five quarterback hurries and two sacks provide a handy argument for turning him loose as often as possible, the Buckeyes obviously can’t just dial up extra pressure on every snap, particularly since their most productive defender has also proven to be successful in coverage with 12 career pass breakups and an interception.

But there is surely a happy medium between an all-out onslaught and a small handful of blitzes, and Shazier obviously won’t mind more chances to add to his Big Ten-leading total of tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

“I’m blitzing as much as the coaches want me to, and I’m going to try to get there every time,” Shazier said. “If the coaches want to keep sending me, I’m going to keep going.

“Whatever the team needs me to do, I’ll do. I love blitzing, and the coaching staff is starting to realize that I like blitzing and we’re going to start being more aggressive, sending more people.”

That ramped-up approach can benefit more than Shazier’s individual numbers, and even when he doesn’t quite get to the passer, he can still have an impact that benefits the rest of the defense.

The Buckeyes have had some communication issues and coverage problems at times in the secondary, with the loss of safety Christian Bryant to a broken ankle only adding to the difficulty. But if Shazier or another extra rusher can force a quicker throw, the defensive backfield doesn’t have to hold up as long and can potentially take advantage of a poor decision -- which has played into Ohio State’s 10 interceptions this season.

A rebuilt defensive line has developed more rapidly than perhaps expected, and it has proven capable of collapsing the pocket without needing help. But an extra hand doesn’t hurt, and with defensive end Noah Spence matching Shazier’s total of nine tackles for loss and adding a team-high five sacks, an offense has even more to worry about when it tries to set up its protection at the line of scrimmage.

None of that, though, would be possible if the raw ability that has always made Shazier an intriguing weapon as a blitzer hadn’t been properly harnessed. But by now, it’s definitely safe for the Buckeyes to let him off the leash.

“We've had some really fast guys that were not good blitzers,” defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said. “We've had slow guys that were really good blitzers.

“It's a knack. It's something that comes down to timing and aiming point in order to be a great blitzer, and it’s something that's sometimes tough to teach.”

Shazier has apparently learned it well, and his head coach clearly wouldn’t mind seeing that lesson put to use more often.