Robinson: Injuries derail success of Steelers’ young defensive players
They wait. They heal. They sit through meetings, stand through practices. They try to remain patient, but patience does not come easily to those who are 22 or 23, and whose careers can end even before they turn 30.
Still, they wait some more.
They were supposed to be the immediate future of the Steelers’ defense, the players who were built around, who replaced the stars of the last decade.
But instead of progress for Jarvis Jones, Ryan Shazier and Shamarko Thomas, there is mostly regress. They’re not playing, and it’s not because their talent wouldn’t permit it but because their bodies won’t allow it.
Jones, the 2013 first-round pick and heir apparent to James Harrison as an edge pass rusher, has played only 157 snaps and none since Sept. 21 because of a damaged wrist that required surgery and hasn’t fully healed.
Jones is optimistic about returning, but with only six games remaining, the chances of any more meaningful time are dwindling. He’s not even close to practicing yet.
“I want to be able to come back and help the team and not be out there babying the injury,” Jones said. “I’ve stayed in the weight room. I’m at every meeting. I pay attention in practice. … I sit beside James Harrison during meetings, ask questions, watch the notes he writes down. I’m taking my therapy very serious.”
In the two-plus games he played, Jones looked to be far advanced from his rookie year, when he did more thinking than reacting, more standing around than sacking. He showed an ability to fight through traffic, to beat tackles who weighed 100 pounds more — something he didn’t do in 2013.
“It’s definitely frustrating not being able to play,” Jones said. “I felt like I was just getting into my groove, making plays and finding myself. It’s something I’ve got to keep focusing on. I’ve got to keep my energy up.”
Shazier said he feels the same way. The 2014 first-round pick made a splash during his first preseason game against the Bills, immediately igniting talk of him being an NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year possibility. But a sprained MCL and, now, an ankle injury have limited to 47 snaps in eight games. Instead of making plays, injecting speed and a sideline-to-sideline presence, Shazier is walking through the locker room with a decided limp.
“The NFL has a 100 percent injury rate, so it’s going to happen. It’s something you have to deal with,” Jones said. “Everybody wishes they were out there making plays.”
It has been even worse for Thomas, the big-hitting safety from Syracuse who was supposed to help restore the physicality to the defense. Remember Ike Taylor nicknaming him “Headache,” because of the hurt he put on receivers?
When the Steelers traded a fourth-round pick to Cleveland last year to move up in the third round and draft Thomas, there was speculation he would be starting by now. But injuries to both hamstrings have prevented Thomas from playing a single snap on defense. Not one.
“Oh, yeah, it’s definitely frustrating,” Thomas said. “I put in a lot of work, hard work in the offseason, a lot of studying to get myself right, get prepared for my second year, and stuff just ain’t going my way. But I don’t want to say I’ve had a setback. I always say I’m set back for a major comeback.”
However, comebacks are supposed to occur later in a career, not when a player is 23.
“We have a great group here of young guys capable of being on field and making plays,” Jones said. “It’s still early. I can’t wait to see everybody healthy. I think we got a great ballclub here and can do some great things.”
For now, any such greatness must wait.