Having suffered a hamstring injury in Week 4, the status of Vince Williams is in some doubt for the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday after Mike Tomlin was unable to offer any positive updates about his condition on Tuesday. If he cannot play, there should be a legitimate debate about who might start in his place.
L.J. Fort was the first player off the bench to replace Williams against the Baltimore Ravens, even though Tyler Matakevich is the one listed behind him on the depth chart. After a week of practice that saw Matthew Thomas training with the first-team at times, the backup roles at inside linebacker are clearly in flux.
Prior to Sunday night, none of these three reserve players had seen a snap on defense through the first three games, and Fort saw just 11 snaps against Baltimore when Williams went down. Looking ahead to Week 5, it appears the undrafted rookie might actually be in line to make his career debut on defense against the Atlanta Falcons.
When asked during his weekly press conference if Thomas would be an option to play in place of Williams, Mike Tomlin confirmed he was in the mix to see some snaps.
“He would be. ... He’s done some nice things and he’s gotten better each and every day. You see some of the results of that in some special teams production. He’s had some special teams tackles over the last couple of weeks, ran down and made a significant tackle on a kick off inside the 20 this past week, had a kickoff tackle on Monday night in Tampa, is playing some gunner for us. He’s got some talents and he’s learning what to do. As he gains more knowledge and a good baseline of play, he’ll be given an opportunity to participate when it presents itself.”
Even if it is not this Sunday, it does seem that Thomas is inching his way closer to be included on defense on game day, and if Williams does miss the upcoming game, it not too hard to envisage the coaching staff believing the young rookie was a better option to start than Fort or Matakevich. That being said, Tomlin’s love of his veteran players is well known, and it would be equally unsurprising if Thomas was left languishing on the bench a bit longer before he was able to convince Tomlin or Keith Butler that he deserved an opportunity to play.
Having expected his inclusion with the first-team in practice ahead of the Ravens game was an indication Thomas might play in Week 4, we are equally prepared to be disappointed again this week.
Should the Steelers continue to falter, they will have nothing to lose from trying some of their more inexperienced players like the former Florida State product. How much worse can he really be given the standard of play we have already seen at the position so far this season?