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Steelers LB Ryan Shazier has All-Pro speed but wants All-Pro results

"I see myself as a linebacker," Ryan Shazier said. "If the team needs me to do anything, I can do it." Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

PITTSBURGH -- The way players recall it, Mike Tomlin teased that Ryan Shazier wasn't among the 10 fastest Pittsburgh Steelers, so linebacker Vince Williams told him Shazier was indeed the fastest.

That exchanged prompted the foot race that hyped the locker room last week. Shazier, a 240-pound linebacker, outran receivers Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton and Sammie Coates in the 40 by a convincing margin.

"I just know a lot of people respect my speed now," said Shazier, who added that Darrius Heyward-Bey is the undisputed speedster on the team. "Some might be scared to race [me now]."

Shazier's "certified freak" status widens the potential for a breakout performance in his third NFL season. When healthy, Shazier is the prototypical linebacker for today's NFL. He has the speed to cover receivers and tight ends downfield, the quick burst to rush the passer and the willingness to shoot a rushing gap for a tackle at the line of scrimmage.

The Shazier experiment has taken time to launch. Injuries forced him to miss a combined 11 games in 2014-15 and 2015-16. As a rookie, Shazier was sometimes in the wrong spots while trying to force a big play.

Now, he is cleaning those things up, and he has earned the trust of defensive coordinator Keith Butler, who tasked Shazier with calling the defense in the huddle late in the previous season. Shazier feels like "kind of the voice of the defense" from play to play, he said.

His speed is there, but it's not all about that. Shazier knows mastering the nuances of the game will take his play to a new level before anything else.

"I definitely feel I was starting to peak at the end of last year," Shazier said. "I was starting to understand things a lot better. I just feel more at home in my decision-making."

As Williams sees it, Shazier gets too much credit for his speed because often he's making plays -- including 87 tackles, two forced fumbles and an interception in 2015-16 -- with his mind.

Shazier wants to be aggressive, but going full speed can get him into trouble, as he realized early in his career. Unless they are chasing down a player, Steelers linebackers are reading and reacting before sprinting.

"He's not running 4.3 every play out there," Williams said. "He's just a good all-around linebacker. He's a big, physical [linebacker] who can play in the A gap and play inside the box, then he's extremely rangy and athletic and [can] cover those athletic tight ends."

The operative word is "linebacker." Shazier considers himself a linebacker first -- not the hybrid safety/linebacker that recent NFL drafts have popularized. Butler acknowledges that constant three-receiver sets from offenses can blur the line between safety and linebacker. Basically, the more guys who can cover like a defensive back on the field at once, the better. Sometimes, NFL teams draft a safety who is more like a smaller, quicker linebacker, so they move him closer to the line of scrimmage.

Shazier sort of looks like that hybrid model, at 6-foot-1 without the bulk of some players at his position. But he makes clear that he wants to be a throwback, nasty tackler.

"I see myself as a linebacker," Shazier said. "If the team needs me to do anything, I can do it."

The team will need a whole lot if Shazier is to help fulfill his plans for the defense.

"We feel we can be one of the best," he said.