Since his rookie season in 2013, Pittsburgh Steelers’ inside linebacker, Vince Williams, has done everything asked of him and more. A true example of a player who has risen through the ranks, his future is as bright as ever in Pittsburgh.
A sixth-round pick draft pick, Williams has played a pivotal role on defense since the early stages of his career. When Larry Foote was lost for the season due to a biceps injury, it was Williams that emerged as his replacement. He started eleven games as a rookie that was expected to see nothing more than special teams duty.
The following year, the Steelers drafted Ryan Shazier with their first-round selection. There was a definite need for depth at inside linebacker, and Shazier was touted as a starter from day one. Along with Shazier, Sean Spence returned in 2014 after a gruesome knee injury in 2012 nearly ended his career.
With Lawrence Timmons, Shazier, and Spence ahead on the depth chart, Williams was reduced to a very limited role in 2015. He made his bones on the special team’s unit and in defensive sub packages. As the 2016 offseason loomed, Williams’ future with the team was a topic of discussion. Would the Steelers extend Timmons or Spence? Would this leave Williams the odd man out?
Williams’ fate would be sealed before the start of the 2016 season. Spence decided his best interests were in joining former defensive coordinator, Dick LeBeau, in Tennessee. Timmons did not receive an extension, which was the least bit surprising to most. In the end, the man who sat fourth on the depth chart a year ago would have his future secured with the Steelers.
The Steelers signed Williams to a three-year extension, awarding the linebacker with the contract that he earned time and time again in his three-year career. The signing was a clear statement that the Steelers are confident Williams will be able to step into a starting role next to Shazier with relative ease.
It didn’t take long for Williams to make an impact on defense in 2016. Virtually silent for the first three games of the season, he came alive last weekend against the Kansas City Chiefs. Stepping in for Shazier, sidelined once again due to a knee injury, Williams went to work against the Chief’s offense.
Williams tallied sixteen tackles and a sack in his first start of the season. Fourteen of those tackles were unassisted, and two of them resulted in negative yardage. The inside linebacker displayed the closing speed necessary to be productive at his position, and his tackles were precise. He proved to be a true difference maker in limiting Kansas City’s offensive production.
In the play above, Williams diagnoses the screen pass before it has time to develop. With Ross Cockrell covering Chris Conley, Tyreek Hill had plenty of space in front of him to turn a simple screen pass into a big gain. This was just one of many impressive tackles made by the inside linebacker on Sunday night.
If Wednesday’s injury report is any indication, Williams will make his second start of the season against the Jets.
Shazier was listed as a non-participant, and it is likely that he will not be completely healthy in time for Sunday. The Steelers would be wise to shelf Shazier until they know for sure he is fully healthy. Too many starters on defense are injured to only risk another. Williams is playing effectively enough to where he can fill in for Shazier until it is time for him to return.
Williams’ extended time on the field will serve as a sign of what is to come in the future. The Steelers are likely to part ways with Timmons after the 2016 season. Although he is still playing at a respectable level in his thirties, the Steelers want to get younger on defense. The fact that they were unable to negotiate a new contract alludes to the fact that this may be his last year.
Shazier may be an extremely talented athlete, his penchant for remaining injured is a heavy burden on the Steelers’ defense. Williams is a testament to the hard work and determination it takes to become a threat on the defense. His continued success will see him as the heir to the inside linebacker position.
Vince Williams personifies what the Steelers search for when selecting future talent through the draft. His ascension from special teams player to key contributor on defense is one similar to James Harrison or Ike Taylor. If his career plays out as well as theirs, he will be a storied leader for years to come.