Wake up: Ryan Shazier's coaching sessions for Steelers begin early

PITTSBURGH -- Ten months after suffering a severe spinal injury inside Paul Brown Stadium that shook fans, players and coaches at their cores, Ryan Shazier is preparing for a Cincinnati Bengals rematch.

As an early-rising coach who has game footage ready to go at 7:30 a.m. sharp.

"He does the same prep as if he were playing that week," Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Tyler Matakevich said.

While on injured reserve for the 2018 season as he recovers from spinal stabilization surgery, Shazier is fulfilling his role as an unofficial linebackers coach. The 26-year-old is unavailable for interviews, but to hear teammates tell it, Shazier takes detailed notes from the defensive coaches' meetings and brings them to his linebackers on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday mornings.

This group of eight players will essentially hear from Shazier before Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin to start the week's game prep.

Teammates always respected the two-time Pro Bowler's football acumen, but it turns out Shazier has inherited a coach's touch.

"He's running the film, going through calls, telling us what he sees," linebacker Anthony Chickillo said. "We really respect his football mind. He can talk about it all day. Anything he says, all the linebackers trust."

Shazier, who received his $8.7 million salary in advance of the season as a good-faith gesture from the Steelers, is a fixture at the team facility. He observes practices and hangs out with players in the locker room, giving words of encouragement when needed. His rehab progress has been impressive. The fear of paralysis was real in the days after the injury, but now Shazier walks without a cane and works out in the Steelers' weight room.

But he's a football guy at the core, and when the linebackers decided they wanted to spend more time together during the week, Shazier was a natural catalyst.

"He's so knowledgeable. Why would you waste that?" said Vince Williams, a close friend of Shazier's who has taken over playcalling duties at inside linebacker. "We're already here most of the time, so we go into our own meetings and everybody brings what they have to the table. We have Ryan run it because he's unbiased. When you're not playing, you can see it more globally. Sometimes when you watch independent film study, you're watching what you have to do. He brings a general understanding."

Defensive coordinator Keith Butler believes Shazier is perfectly suited for this role because he understands football and isn't far removed from game action.

Shazier is also eager to learn, which Butler says came with a harsh reality: Coaches work more hours than players.

"He gets experience in meetings with us and sometimes he gets his own ideas -- we don't stop him from relaying those," Butler said. "He understands the modern game."

Shazier's guidance extends to the sidelines, where Matakevich said Shazier is often the first to greet him with game footage on a tablet as he comes off the field. L.J. Fort, who played on passing downs Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons, said Shazier has aided him with coverage techniques and the tendencies of opposing receivers.

Some teammates are starting to view him as an actual coach.

To others, Shazier's still a playmaker.

"I view Ryan as a player, a player who's just hurt right now," Chickillo said. "He's there for us like any other player. He's part of our team, there's no question about that."