When the Steelers announced on Thursday that they had signed inside linebacker Vince Williams to a four-year deal through 2021 season, it just felt right.
In-fact, even though this is now the third contract Williams has signed with the Steelers since they picked him in the sixth-round of the 2013 NFL Draft (he inked a two-year extension in 2016), it feels like he has finally arrived as a legitimate member of the black-and-gold defense.
Despite starting 11 games in his rookie year, following a season-ending injury to veteran Larry Foote in Week-1, Williams saw his playing time decline in 2014.
Ryan Shazier, that’s why. The Steelers surprised a few folks by drafting Shazier with their first-round pick in 2014, a move that would soon prove to be vital to their defense’s future, as No. 50 quickly became the centerpiece and all-everything successor to Troy Polamalu, albeit at the inside linebacker spot.
With the veteran Lawrence Timmons playing alongside Shazier, this left little room for development for Williams, who only started two games through the 2015 season and was mostly a special teams ace.
But when Pittsburgh inked Williams to that aforementioned contract-extension, it was seen as a move that would allow the team to part ways with the older and more expensive Timmons following the 2016 campaign. Despite Timmons’ resurgence in the latter part of the season, this is precisely what happened, as the Dolphins made the veteran a free agent offer he couldn’t refuse in the offseason.
No worries, considering Williams’ splendid play while filling in for an injured Shazier early in the ‘16 season (Williams combined for 26 tackles in back-to-back victories over the Chiefs and Jets).
With Williams and his hard-hitting style acting as the thunder to Shazier’s lightning, the inside linebacker spot was set. This was further reinforced when Shazier got off to the best—and healthiest—start of his career in 2017, while Williams started all 16 games and would go on to set career highs in tackles (68) and, quite remarkably, sacks (eight).
But, as you know, the unthinkable happened on December 4, when Shazier was lost for the rest of the season with a horrific spinal injury, leaving the Steelers’ defense without its centerpiece, without its all-everything successor to Polamalu.
Suddenly, Williams’ thunder didn’t seem so loud without Shazier’s lightning strike.
The lack of lightning limited the Steelers’ defense down-the-stretch and into the playoffs, as teams exploited the loss of such an important component.
Fast-forward to today.
Despite the signing of the veteran Jon Bostic in free agency and the sudden opportunity presented to third-year man, Tyler Matakevich, Williams may lack his lightning counterpart for at least another season.
The plan is for the Steelers to use safeties in the box to compensate for the loss of Shazier in 2018.
Will this work? It remains to be seen, but it’s nice to know the defense will now have a veteran presence at the inside linebacker spot to keep things in order.
And make no mistake, at age 28, Williams is a veteran. He’s no longer a youngster that can rely on older and/or more talented players to carry the load. He now must do a lot of the heavy lifting for a unit that has to find a way to play its part for a franchise that is one of the favorites in the AFC to make it to Super Bowl LIII.
Yes, Williams has a bit of a problem in pass-coverage (most guys who play the thunder role in a duo aren’t known for their range), but that’s why the onus is on a combination of those other linebackers and safeties to provide that service.
Ideally, what the Steelers need is to find another inside linebacker who can do the things Shazier once did. That may not happen this year, but if and when it does, that youngster will have a wise veteran to learn from, a man who rose up from the ranks of lower-round pick to the position of team leader.
A team can’t get by on first and second-round talent alone. While every unit needs at least one stud, it also needs a lower-round pick or UDFA to develop into someone dependable (think 2009 UDFA Ramon Foster more than holding his own on an offensive line full of studs).
The Steelers need Williams right now, and they’ll probably need him over the next four years.
Vince Williams has earned his new contract and his stripes as a veteran member of the Steelers’ defense.