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After tragically losing the heart of their defense two years ago, the Steelers traded up in the draft and found a replacement in Devin Bush, and in the process an unlikely mentor for their new star linebacker

By Judy Battista | Published Oct. 23, 2019

PITTSBURGH -- To have watched them both, arriving for a training camp lunch minutes apart this summer, was to imagine alternate endings.

Ryan Shazier climbed the steep stairs on the way to the cafeteria, each step another triumph over the severe spinal cord injury he suffered late in the 2017 season. A limp lingers, just as his smile does. As the second season since his injury reaches the halfway point, Shazier's goal, still, is to play again, although the contours of his post-playing life are taking greater shape. Shazier is back in school this fall, taking classes at the University of Pittsburgh toward the undergraduate degree he put aside to be a first-round draft pick in 2014. He has started a foundation to assist others who have had an injury similar to his get the kind of intensive care and rehabilitation they need, the care that has boosted his remarkable recovery. And, while he is on the Pittsburgh Steelers' Physically Unable to Perform list, Shazier has settled into something of an unofficial coaching internship, allowing him the most gracious of second football acts.

Devin Bush was a few minutes behind Shazier that day in August. Bush, 21, is shorter and less outwardly ebullient than Shazier, but that he was walking, quite literally, in Shazier's footsteps at camp was fitting. Bush, after all, has already been designated as the next great linebacker in the franchise of Lambert, Ham, Harrison and, though his career was prematurely interrupted just as he was reaching his own full potential, Shazier. "Next man up" is a football cliche that flippantly alludes to the disposability of players. But the Steelers are living "next man up" in its most vivid and heartening form. Shazier is still recovering with the help of the Steelers, Bush has arrived to take his job and give the defense what it was so obviously lacking since Shazier was hurt, and Shazier is helping him do it.

"Congratulations, I'm there for you."

That was the first thing Bush heard from Shazier, in a text shortly after the Steelers made the stunning draft-night trade to move up to select Bush 10th overall in April. The Steelers' aggressive move up the board -- they gave the Denver Broncos their first- and second-round picks in 2019 and a third-rounder in 2020 to move up 10 spots -- was out of character for a team that builds its roster primarily through the draft. But it also spoke to Bush's talent and the Steelers' desperation to reshape the defense. That text from Shazier didn't assure success for Bush or the Steelers, but it at least made clear that his against-the-odds recovery story would not end with a bitter baton pass to his replacement.

The Steelers' 2-4 start this season has included a season-ending injury to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and only a few bright spots. The emergence of Bush and the burgeoning revival of the defense are the most important of those. The defense is ranked 14th in points allowed, but second overall in forcing turnovers.

Bush's arrival could, of course, have created a painful situation for the Steelers. There is no escaping the fact that Bush is taking Shazier's job and, it is hoped, will hold it for years to come. Shazier's recovery, though, continues to be extraordinary and inspiring. Last spring, he posted a video of him doing box jumps and a few weeks later he danced at his wedding. But Bush's presence is an unspoken signal that while Shazier is still a beloved member of the Steelers, it is currently unlikely he will ever play again.

In almost any other line of work, and even sometimes in sports, a partnership between Shazier and Bush would be improbable. Professionals in the prime of their lives simply don't willingly groom others to take their jobs before they are willing to give them up. A less generous person than Shazier might not have reached out to Bush. A less humble person than Bush could have found Shazier's presence suffocating.

But that is so far from what has unfolded since the draft. So far that linebacker Vince Williams is confounded he would even be asked to imagine how differently this could have gone.

"What else is he supposed to do?" Williams said. "Do you know Ryan Shazier?"

Jerry Olsavsky, the Steelers' inside linebackers coach, does. A former player himself, Olsavsky coached Shazier and is now Bush's coach. He sees up close how much Shazier misses playing. But he has also seen how much Shazier is doing to help Bush reach for the same success Shazier hoped for.

"It is an incredibly awkward situation and it speaks a huge amount to the person that Ryan Shazier is," Olsavsky said. "He just wants to help everyone with anything. He loves football. If you could imagine, this is what he wanted to be. And now there is this guy who wants to be the same thing and he's going to help him. He's going to focus on him. That's just how Ryan is. If it was me, it would be difficult. I don't think it's difficult for him. You can't imagine him. He just wanted to be the best football player that ever played and he's talented enough to get that done."

The erosion of the Steelers' linebacking corps had been shockingly quick. Jason Worilds unexpectedly retired in 2015. James Harrison slowed down. Jarvis Jones didn't pan out. Bud Dupree hadn't yet fully lived up to expectations until an improvement this season. Shazier was on his way to becoming the defensive anchor for the next generation -- in 46 career games, he had seven interceptions, 25 passes defensed, seven forced fumbles, seven sacks and 303 tackles (205 solo) -- before he got hurt. Then Jon Bostic, who was signed last year to replace Shazier, was a disappointment and did not return.

That the Steelers wanted Bush and that he was a natural fit surprised no one who paid attention during the run up to the draft. A consensus All-American and the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, Bush ran the 40-yard dash in 4.43 seconds and had a 40-inch vertical at the NFL Scouting Combine. He also had an intangible that NFL executives covet: Bush is from a football family and has been around the NFL his entire life. His father, Devin Sr., played eight seasons in the NFL and won a Super Bowl as the starting safety for the St. Louis Rams, before becoming his son's youth league and high school coach in South Florida. His father's best friend is Derrick Brooks, the Hall of Fame linebacker who won a Super Bowl with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin, an assistant for that Bucs team, had been hearing about Bush from Brooks for a while. Brooks had also been guiding Bush through the draft process and the expectations surrounding a first-round pick. Brooks helped, he said, settle any nervousness Bush may have been feeling about his new role. At Tomlin's request, Brooks had offered the same kind of wisdom to Shazier when his career was beginning, their conversations morphing over the years from what it was like to grow up in the NFL to, before his injury, the X's and O's of playing linebacker. Not surprisingly, among the bits of advice Brooks gave Bush after he became a Steeler: Be open to anything Shazier tells you.

"Physically, they are different," Brooks said. "Ryan is bigger and faster. It's their impact on the game where there could be similarities. I don't want to rush the process for Devin. He has to go through the learning curve Ryan went through. It's not fair. But it's advantageous to Devin that he has Ryan to help him through the process."

Shazier is by Bush's side -- during practices, on the sideline at games, in film study -- for much of the rookie's preparation time. During a training camp practice, as Bush walked to the sideline after running a play, Shazier strolled up to him to talk for a few moments. Before the season began, when Bush was asked what his weakness was, he said he thought he had to catch up with the mental part of the game. Shazier's role as a tutor allows him to impart his accumulated wisdom, and he is constantly asking Bush what he saw on a play and telling him what he sees, too. Shazier tells him things only other players would understand, the nuances of the position they share, insight enhanced by the fact that few other players also share their spectacular physical gifts. Several members of the team have noted Bush's humility, and he has -- as Brooks advised -- welcomed Shazier's input.

"He's going to make a lot of splash for us," Shazier told NFL Network just before the season began.

Shazier revealed that one of Bush's goals was to win the league's Defensive Player of the Year award. Shazier did not think he would be that far off from it, and he said he wanted to do whatever he could to help him win it.

"A lot of times he might ask me some questions when things might go on in meetings. Sometimes we might watch film together," Shazier said. "I had some great leaders when I played and I'm just truly thankful for the player I am because of the insight they gave me. So sometimes I give him some insight. I don't know if he's listening to it or not, but I just kinda try to give him the insight I wish someone would've gave me."

The early results, members of the organization say, have been even better than the Steelers expected. In Pittsburgh's win against the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 6 before the team's bye, Bush had his prime-time breakout. He had a fumble return for a touchdown and an interception, earning NFL Defensive Player of the Week honors. He leads the Steelers with 52 tackles -- 32 of them solo -- and has two interceptions, three passes defensed, a sack and four fumble recoveries. He is almost comically always around the ball, a critical part of the Steelers' defensive renaissance. In 2018, Pittsburgh defenders forced just 20 turnovers. Through six games this season, they already have 12.

Bush has been a linebacker his entire life (Shazier, on the other hand, played defensive end in high school) and Brooks labels what Bush has as "football awareness". He is most often in the right place, and when he does make mistakes, he makes up for them with effort. His teammate T.J. Watt said he rarely sees Bush looking around, as if he is lost in the complexity of the defense and doesn't know what he is supposed to be doing. For now, Bush is not wearing the green dot on his helmet to indicate that he has the communication system with coaches. He doesn't yet have to call the defenses or worry about getting others in place. It has allowed him to focus solely on his own game.

"I'm not trying to be overly pressed," Bush said. "They picked me to do a job. Be the player I know I can be."

Bush and Shazier have known about each other for years. They were both high school stars in Florida's Broward County -- north of Miami -- and they both went to Big Ten schools. So Shazier's advice has ranged well beyond the field. He has talked to Bush about handling the pro game, what his role with the team is, and what Bush wants to make of his career.

"He's letting me play it out and as things go, he will give me advice," Bush said. "If you understand it, it's a team thing. Obviously, he misses the game. He just wants the team to be successful. I think he will approach it as 'I'm the big brother, you're the little brother and I'm going to help you.' "

The little brother, then, has quite a bit to live up to. When Shazier was a rookie, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw a pass in practice over the middle of the field. It was far over Shazier's head, so high that the linebacker should not have been able to even tip the ball. Instead, he leaped and intercepted it, a play that, Roethlisberger remembers, left him standing on the field thinking, "How is that possible? It's impossible."

Shazier, at 6-foot-1, is two inches taller than Bush, although Bush has such a powerful-looking lower body that Watt says while he was surprised by Bush's size, "he looks like he could squat the house." Still, the difference in their physical tools can be measured only in tiny increments, a few hundredths of a second in a 40-yard sprint, an inch or two on a vertical. What Shazier had before he was injured was an ability to play to the edge of the envelope of his athletic ability. Roethlisberger remembers Shazier's development as a player being so dramatic he could see it from week to week. That is what coaches must now get out of Bush, although defensive coordinator Keith Butler said just before the season began that the Steelers wanted to be careful not to overdo it with their rookie linebacker.

The Steelers are currently not asking Bush to do quite as much as they used to ask of Shazier, who made all the checks and all the calls, getting the Steelers out of bad matchups. But that won't last long. During the preseason, Steelers coaches were giddy about the possibilities for Bush and the defense, and nothing that has happened since has dimmed the optimism that they have settled such a crucial position. Olsavsky said his early impression of Bush is the same as everyone else's: He looks like he's been doing this his whole life and even if he makes a mistake, he knows it even before coaches point it out. Bush is expected to be the star of the defense, but he is unlikely to behave like one.

"I'm not the only one out there," he said. "It's me and 10 other players. It's not all on one person or three people. Our defense will be what we do as a unit."

When he was younger, Shazier turned to Roethlisberger for advice about how to lead teammates. He understood that the middle linebacker was the leader of the defense, the way the quarterback leads the offense. So, Roethlisberger was not surprised that Shazier immediately reached out to Bush, and that he is now delivering that same leadership advice he once received. It was obvious to everyone around the Steelers that they needed a player who could do the things in the middle of the defense that Shazier had been doing before he was hurt and, Roethlisberger believes, Shazier has embraced wanting the team to be successful. Nearly two years since he last played, Shazier is still doing what he can to assure that it will be.

Before he was injured in the second game of the season, Roethlisberger faced Bush in practice like he once faced Shazier. Shazier, Roethlisberger thought, could use his physical greatness to help him overcome being in the wrong spot and he would regularly shock his own teammates with his acrobatic plays. Roethlisberger does not see that with Bush, and perhaps he never will. That is not necessarily a bad thing, Roethlisberger said. And it may be a sign that Shazier's pointers are already helping Bush avoid the mistakes a younger Shazier once made.

"He's not intercepting balls one-handed or doing anything crazy," Roethlisberger said. "What he is doing, which I think is even more impressive, is he's not making mistakes. He's not out of place. I might catch a pass on him, but he's right there to tackle it right away. He's always around the ball. To me, that's more 'wow' than the wow plays."


Editors: Andy Fenelon, Dan Parr | Illustration: Chloe Booher
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