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Ryan Shazier, Steelers D launching into Denver with momentum

Ryan Shazier had 13 tackles, two pass deflections, two tackles for loss and two forced fumbles but was criticized for his hit on Bengals running back Giovani Bernard. Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY Sports

DENVER -- For the bruised-and-battered Pittsburgh Steelers to limp into Mile High Stadium and strut out with a win over the Broncos on Sunday, they will need at least two breakout players on defense.

Ryan Shazier appears eager to oblige.

Shazier was masterful in the wild-card win over Cincinnati, stuffing the stat sheet like a stocking: 13 tackles, two pass deflections, two tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, including a one-handed strip of Bengals running back Jeremy Hill with 1:36 left that set up the game-winning field goal for the Steelers.

He also makes checks for the linebackers corps and helps operate its recently-effective dime package -- with Shazier and a third safety, Robert Golden, lined up together on certain downs.

Then there was Shazier's vicious hit on Bengals running back Giovani Bernard, which showcased Shazier's explosion as a player. It also gave Bernard a concussion, sparking debate about whether Shazier's hit should have garnered a hefty fine from the league (it didn't) or a penalty (it didn't).

Shazier will be known for his play long after the hit made headlines, though there are parallels to the helmet shot and his maturation as a player.

"Everything is going so fast [out there]," said Shazier, reiterating he's not a dirty player and apologized to Bernard.

Shazier needed time to find his rhythm in the defense, but now that he has it, he's starting to maximize his potential. The Steelers started transitioning Shazier to a vocal role on the field around Week 2, when he recorded 15 tackles against the 49ers, but a shoulder injury sidelined him for four weeks after that. His return was imperfect, as Shazier admits he was late getting those calls to the rest of the defense during the Dec. 20 game against Denver, which jumped to a double-digit lead in the first half. Shazier's interception in the second half, as the Steelers cleaned up those calls, helped secure a 34-27 comeback win.

Defensive coordinator Keith Butler said Shazier had been "playing by the seat of his hands" for a while but has settled into the defense nicely.

Missing 11 games in the past two years has Shazier fighting the injury stigma. The Bengals game, though, showed the range he can cover with elite speed for his position. He uses speed to overcome his lack of size at 230 pounds.

The chance to patch together two straight stellar games is appealing to a player who yearns for consistency.

"I think that's the next step," Shazier said. "When you have a good game, you have to back it up and make sure your teammates can depend on you. They want to see you do it week-in and week-out."

Veteran linebacker Arthur Moats has noticed the young first-round picks -- Shazier and outside linebackers Jarvis Jones and Bud Dupree -- gave the defense a lift last week.

"When those guys are playing at a high level at this time of year, it helps us tremendously," Moats said.

The Steelers are an imperfect defense but they do three things well -- create turnovers, stop the run and get sacks. Shazier, when healthy, embodies the Steelers' approach.

Incentive for Shazier in this matchup: taking another step toward a goal of joining the linebackers of Steelers lore, such as (most recently) Joey Porter and teammate James Harrison.

"I've known about those guys for a long time," said Shazier, a first-round pick in 2014 whose dad, Vernon, is a big Steelers fan. "Anytime you're a linebacker and you want to be good at your craft, you're going to know about Jack Lambert and Jack Ham and those guys."