Going into the 2014 NFL season, the Pittsburgh Steelers have multiple decisions to make regarding position battles both on offense and defense. Though at inside linebacker, two young guns will battle throughout the summer to determine who is next to join the Steelers’ historic group of linebackers. A point of great weakness in 2013, the man who lines up next to Lawrence Timmons in the middle of Dick LeBeau’s 3-4 defense will have to be efficient at a few areas they both are growing at. There are three main areas we will focus on: pass coverage, pass rush and stopping the run. Since Vince Williams only played in 11 games last season, some of his college work will have to be considered. Of course, Ryan Shazier’s resumé is entirely based on his college work.
A quick note regarding the players chosen. Sean Spence is a player turning heads with his remarkable comeback already. However, the Steelers should focus their energy on getting Spence back on the field 100% healthy before committing a starting job to him. At the moment, Vince Williams and Ryan Shazier are two talented, healthy players who possess the skills necessary to start for Pittsburgh. Once Spence is proven to be completely healthy, his name can be thrown into that ring as well. Now, let's get started.
This is an area that is going to be extremely important for a couple of different reasons. One, it’s vital for an inside linebacker to have this ability. An inside linebacker needs to be able to handle the ten-yard zone behind the defensive line. That means not just stopping what happens in front of him in the run game but what also happens behinds him in the passing game. He will not be asked to drop as deep as a safety, but he should be own the middle of the field. Speaking of safety, the second reason is Troy Polamalu. As much as we love seeing Polamalu hover around the line only to drop off into coverage, it creates a hole in coverage that opposing quarterbacks loved to pick apart. A solid inside linebacker would allow Polamalu to stay back in coverage and only hover around the front when absolutely needed.
Vince Williams at Florida State was not known for his pass coverage. It’s one of the reasons he dropped to the sixth round in the 2013 draft. Unfortunately for Williams, Florida State’s defense was stacked in the secondary at the time and the front-seven was able to focus more on the run game. In his entire four-year career at FSU, Williams only brought in one interception. At Florida State, Williams played many college-style offenses like Georgia Tech and Maryland where more plays focused on the option and not the pass. In 2013, we found that Vince Williams made little to no improvement here. He was used more in third-and-short packages once this weakness was exposed. Fellow rookie Terence Garvin took his place in the passing defense more often then not. During this upcoming set of camps and preseason games, much of the focus for Williams needs to cater towards pass coverage. He tends to lose his footing when backtracking with the receiver and appears lost when the middle of the field gets congested.
Ryan Shazier at Ohio State, like Williams, wasn’t entirely known for his pass coverage. The difference between Shazier and Williams is athleticism. Shazier, 6-foot-1 and 237 pounds, only has a ten-pound advantage on Williams, 6-foot-1 and 247 pounds, but his hips and footwork are already much more polished than Williams’. Shazier is quick and able to move around that ten-yard zone behind the defensive line with fluidity and aggressiveness. All of that being said, Shazier himself only attributed one interception during his three years at Ohio State. Shazier could use improvement in areas such as tracking the quarterback’s eyes and, like Williams, he has the tendency to get lost in the shuffle.
With all of this, it’s a close call. Both men have improvements to be made, without a doubt, and they both seem to be similar in ability. What gives Ryan Shazier the advantage is his athleticism. This gives him an enormous upside in being able to mold him into the player Pittsburgh truly needs.
Advantage: Ryan Shazier
One of the vital parts of being a Steelers linebacker is your ability to rush the quarterback. If you can get into the quarterback’s face enough, you can secure a job in Pittsburgh. So needless to say, this is a huge part of the evaluation process for Dick LeBeau and company. Though an inside linebacker for the Steelers does not necessarily need to rack up the sack numbers, he should be able to rush the line and create pressure right in the front of the pocket. This allows the outside linebackers or a blitzing safety to break free into the pocket and cause a disruption.
Vince Williams was basically a non-factor in Pittsburgh last season when it came to the pass rush. He was never really in packages against the pass so it was rare for him to be in those situations. We can take a look at his work at Florida State. At FSU, Williams sacked the quarterback three times in four years. This can be a bad way to view this until you watch his tape. Against the pass, Williams consistently jammed the offensive line was key in many plays where a sack occurred. His work allowed a teammate to run free and make the play. This will be key in the Steelers’ success this coming season. It’s impossible for the entire front-seven to get a sack on one play, but if each player understands their role, it becomes easier for someone to make the play. Williams can be that role player that jams the line and allows a player like Jason Worilds to wrap inside and take advantage of the gap to be able to get to the quarterback.
Ryan Shazier had a solid college career resting on his pass rush alone. Being as athletic as he is again gives him a tremendous upside and advantage over Williams. He can make his way through the line and sack the quarterback quicker than you can blink. In three seasons, Shazier had 15 sacks with seven of those coming in his junior season. When Shazier wasn’t sacking the quarterback, he was making plays similar to what Williams is capable of doing it. If Shazier was drawn up to blitz, he was making an impact. Shazier was opening up lanes for other pass rushers to make the play. It never hurts that Shazier was asked to be a pass rusher in many different packages at Ohio State.
The gap between the two players is more apparent in the pass rush than pass coverage. Ryan Shazier has the clear advantage here, again, given his athleticism and experience being a pass rusher.
Advantage: Ryan Shazier
Stopping the Run
This is where both players truly shine. This is precisely why Vince Williams was even drafted. Ryan Shazier, on the other hand, boasted his college career on his athleticism and speed that proved to be effective in stopping the run for Ohio State. This is the closest battle between the two. Pittsburgh is historically known for dominant defenses smothering running backs each and every Sunday. Dick LeBeau will look at this battle very closely as it appears the Steelers want to get back to their roots.
A quick look at any of Vince Williams' college highlights will show an intimidating presence tracking down the ball carrier. Williams has an inate ability to read the option play. Once he's figured out the play, the 247-pounder explodes through and can lay some heavy hits on an opponent. In today's NFL, as seen by your most recent Super Bowl champions, the Seattle Seahawks, the read-option is a growing part of the offense and having an inside linebacker that can read and react to the option as well as Vince Williams can is a skill Pittsburgh will value heavily. The Steelers could benefit from running some option plays in practice to prepare the rest of their group for what is to come.
Ryan Shazier has one big problem. It's not his ability to stop the run, it's not his quickness, it's not his mind, it's how he was drawn up at Ohio State. This is one area where fans and scouts have seen a lot of potential but not much execution. Realistically, that is of no fault of his own. Shazier was asked to man the ten-yard zone more than he was asked to cover the run. He certainly put up impressive numbers when out of 317 tackles, nearly 15% were behind the line of scrimmage. For a player ranging all over the field, this is without a doubt a number to be proud of. The other issue, though minor, is his ability to cover the option, which we have uncovered Vince Williams can do very well. Shazier, on film, has a few times been caught out of position making the wrong read and can get exposed fairly quickly. Though he has the speed and quickness to turn his hips upfield and make the adjustment, it would be nice to see him read the play correctly from the beginning.
Looking at the numbers, it can be easy to see that Ryan Shazier has the advantage here, however, after closer examination, it's Vince Williams that stands out as the premier run-stopper. His explosiveness partnered with a great mind for the read-option can be a scary combination for the Steelers.
Advantage: Vince Williams
There is one more field that hasn't been discussed. Experience can weigh heavily on a team's decision to pick a winner. Vince Williams gets a point here for his experience last season with the team. Having a year under your belt for Dick LeBeau is never a bad thing and this should be used in consideration.
This makes the position battle pretty much a draw at 2-2. With Ryan Shazier getting his points covering pass and rushing the quarterback, Vince Williams comes back with his ability to stop the run and his one-year experience.
All-in-all, barring any injuries or mind-blowing training camps and preseason games, I believe Ryan Shazier gets the nod. He has the chance to do something no Steelers rookie linebacker has been able to do since Kendrell Bell in 2001: have a starting job at Week 1. Experience will come and Shazier should have the ability to learn, along with the rest of the NFL, how to stop the read-option and we'll all move on to the next offensive fad.