The injury to Ryan Shazier was difficult to watch for everyone who viewed it either live or on replay. You didn’t have to be a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers to watch in horror as a young man brimming with potential lay motionless on the football field on Monday Night Football.
Shazier was a transcendent talent - a combination of smarts, athleticism and freakish speed rarely seen at the inside linebacker position. For the few years fans enjoyed watching No. 50 roam the interior of the defense wreaking havoc, it isn’t far fetched to think everyone got a little spoiled. Because when he wasn’t in the lineup it seemed as if a gaping hole was left in his absence.
Players like Ryan Shazier don’t grow on trees, and replacing them midseason is almost impossible. But while a large majority of the fan base has been suggesting Vince Williams, half of the shake-and-bake duo, isn’t good enough to be the anchor at the inside linebacker position, I will politely disagree.
Is Williams the same player as Shaizer? No, but few are. Is Williams an NFL starter who is more than capable of doing his job, and doing it well? No doubt about it.
The Steelers’ defense was exposed last year for a lot of reasons, and none fall solely on the shoulders of No. 98. Williams is more than capable when paired with speed and athleticism next to him. Is free agent acquisition Jon Bostic that type of player? Maybe, but the hybrid safety plan the team wants to put in place this year, with Terrell Edmunds and/or Marcus Allen, would pair Williams with a player which will allow him to do what he does best: run downhill, make plays and put pressure on the quarterback.
Yes, pressuring the quarterback was something Williams did extremely well last season. He ended the year with 8 sacks, he will tell you he should have had at least 10, and 7 of those sacks came when rushing the passer from the inside linebacker position.
Check out this stat from Pro Football Focus:
Last season, #Steelers ILB Vince Williams rushed the passer on 20.2% of passing snaps (4th at the position). He turned those opportunities into 18 pressures and 7 sacks (top among all ILB). #SteelerSpotlight— PFF PIT Steelers (@PFF_Steelers) May 15, 2018
When I think about the dominant Steelers defenses of the early 2000s, I see inside linebackers who resembled Williams more than they did Shazier. James Farrior and Larry Foote were smart, physical players but each had their own physical limitations. The same can be said about Williams. Ask Williams to cover athletic tight ends, and it will likely end poorly — although he did intercept Tom Brady in 2017. However, ask Williams to cover a back out of the backfield, or put pressure on the quarterback and he will succeed more than he fails.
The point of all this is simple — Vince Williams isn’t the problem. It looked as if he was after Shazier’s injury, but when you lose the main cog of your defense midway through the year, you can’t always expect the “next man up” to uphold “the standard”. It just doesn’t always work.
Nonetheless, when looking at the Steelers’ plan regarding the deployment of their inside linebackers in 2018, be it with safeties or the duo of Bostic and Williams, I am confident in two things:
- Vince Williams can, and will, be a very good player for the Steelers.
- Given an entire offseason to figure out life without Shazier, the defense will be much improved in many glaring areas at the end of last season.
Say what you want about the Steelers defense, and the horrific memory of Blake Bortles and the Jacksonville Jaguars playoff victory at Heinz Field, but Vince Williams is more than competent enough to be the anchor of the defense in 2018, and hopefully beyond.