Steelers rookie linebacker Vince Williams has been undergoing a baptism by fire this season.
Playing the most snaps of any rookie inside linebacker since Kendrell Bell - which is to say the most since Dick LeBeau returned as the Steelers' defensive coordinator in 2004 - Williams has taken his lumps probably more than any other Steelers rookie. He doesn't have the first round pedigree of outside linebacker Jarvis Jones. He does carry with him the same day-to-day expectations, though.
Williams is coming off probably his best performance of his young career, notching six tackles and four stops against Cincinnati, as Pittsburgh's defense stifled the strong-running Bengals to just 57 yards on the ground.
The strength of his performance allowed Troy Polamalu, who has often assumed the inside linebacker spot over Williams over the last several games, to return to his natural safety position. That, in turn, made the Steelers defense stronger overall, and held the Bengals without a play of 20 yards or longer - the first time this season they've held an opponent without one.
Larry Foote tore a biceps muscle, ending his season in Week 1. Sean Spence hasn't been able to get healthy enough to see the field. It's possible Williams must engage with both of them this offseason to keep a role of prominence within the team.
Or, Williams can make Foote's $1.6 million cap hit negligible.
A strong performance in Pittsburgh's final two games, starting with Week 16 at Green Bay, will go a long way in determining if Williams has grown to become more than a rookie starting in undesirable situations.
That test won't be tougher than against Green Bay, with powerful running back Eddie Lacy and the likely return of All-World quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Few, if any, offenses in the NFL are more potent than the Packers when fully healthy. They may be as close as they're going to get to that level. If Williams can continue to bolster his position, leaving Polamalu in the secondary and helping Lawrence Timmons focus on just his assignments, the Steelers defense can be in a position to slow them down.
If not, Foote and Spence may just creep back into the picture.
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