Sometimes you don’t appreciate what it is you’ve lost until it’s gone. It’s so true in life, and it’s also true in professional sports. While this could be a discussion about former Steelers who have moved on to other places only to realize that things aren’t always better outside of Pittsburgh, in this case the discussion is set around the play of inside linebacker Vince Williams.
After seeing limited snaps in Week 1 against the Patriots and barely any in Week 2 before exiting the game due to injury against the Seahawks, Vince Williams missed the Steelers third and fourth games of 2019 against the San Francisco 49ers and Cincinnati Bengals. While some Steelers’ fans were complaining about Williams deficiencies in pass coverage, it was taken for granted how much Vince Williams does in stopping the run for the Steelers. I even fall in this category as I made the statement when Williams missed time where I questioned if there would be a spot left for him on the defense once he was healthy. The play of rookie Devin Bush and free-agent acquisition Mark Barron was going to determine how much Williams would be used moving forward.
I, like many others who felt the same way, was very wrong.
Being the stat geek I am, I decided to dive into the numbers in 2019 when it comes to the Steelers run defense and Vince Williams ability to be on the field. I found some things that were very interesting, so let’s break it down week-by-week.
Week 1 at New England
Vince Williams only logged 22 snaps on defense the opening week of the season which equated to 31% of those available. Instead, Devin Bush played 76% of the snaps while Mark Barron played 69%. For the game, the New England Patriots rushed for 99 yards on 29 attempts for an average of 3.41 yards per carry. This was slightly higher than their 2019 season average of 3.27 yards per carry heading into their Week 8 game against the Cleveland Browns.
Week 2 vs Seattle
While Williams did play in the game, he only saw 10 defensive snaps before leaving the game with an injured hamstring. The 10 snaps Williams saw equated to 13% of the total snaps on defense. For the game, the Seahawks rushed for 151 yards on 33 attempts. They averaged 4.58 yards per carry which is half a yard higher than their 4.08 yards per carry average in 2019 heading into Week 8.
Week 3 at San Francisco
With Vince Williams out of the game due to injury, the Steelers gave up their most rushing yards on the season. San Francisco rushed for 168 yards on 40 attempts for an average of 4.20 yards per carry. While this is a very impressive total, it is actually lower than the 49ers season average of 4.43 yards per carry through the first eight weeks of 2019. The reason their statistics are so skewed is that both the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns gave up over 250 yards rushing to the 49ers. The Steelers surrendered the third most yards to San Francisco in 2019.
Week 4 vs Cincinnati
With Williams sitting out for another week against the Bengals, it looked as if the Steelers got back on track when it came to the rushing defense. The Bengals only had 73 yards on the ground on 19 attempts. But the Bengals averaged 3.84 yards per carry which is almost an entire yard higher than their 2.91 yards per carry through the first eight weeks of 2019. In fact, the Bengals have only rushed for more yards in a game one other time on the season, which was against the Arizona Cardinals. So while the numbers appear to be low, they are actually better rushing numbers than the Bengals have usually tallied in 2019. In fact, the Bengals have four games in 2019 in which they have rushed for under 35 yards total.
Week 5 vs Baltimore
After missing two weeks, many Steelers’ fans were happy to see Vince Williams return with the Steelers going up against the NFL’s number one rushing attack in the Baltimore Ravens. Williams logged 51 snaps in the game which was 65% of those on defense. The Ravens did rush for 138 yards on 40 attempts for an average of 3.45 yards per carry. This amount was over 2 yards less per carry then the Ravens have averaged in 2019. In fact, this is the only regular-season game in the last 14 for the Ravens dating back to when Lamar Jackson took over the starting quarterback position for the Ravens in Week 11 where the team didn’t reach 150 rushing yards. The Ravens had the third longest streak in NFL history of logging regular-season games with 150 yards or more rushing. If it weren’t for the Steelers holding them under this amount, they would currently be tied for first in NFL history with the 1975-76 Steelers who had a streak of 14 games.
So while it looks like the Ravens rushed for a large amount of yards, the running game was somewhat held in check compared to other opponents. Their game against the Steelers is their lowest rushing total in the season, 35 yards less than their next lowest amount in 2019.
Week 6 at Los Angeles Chargers
If there was a game that showed the Steelers dominance in the run game, it was against the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday Night Football in Week 6. The Chargers only attempted 14 rushes in the game, partially because they were ineffective and only gained 32 yards. The average of 2.29 yards per carry is a yard less than their 3.51 yards per carry on the 2019 season heading into Week 8. In the game, Vince Williams logged 38 defensive snaps which was 61% of those possible.
What these numbers show is the Steelers have a much better relative rushing defense when Vince Williams is available and plays more than 60% of the snaps. In both of those games, there has been a significant decrease in yards per attempt, with teams averaging 1.2 yards lower than their season average.
While some analysts believe William’s role would be diminished in 2019 when the Steelers traded up for Devin Bush, it goes to show that Bush is more of a complement to Vince Williams rather than a replacement. As seen when Williams was paired with Ryan Shazier, he thrives in a defense where he is not required to be the number one coverage linebacker on the team.
Is Vince Williams a top tier linebacker in the NFL? Probably not by many standards. Is he an important player in the Steelers defense which is rising up the rankings week by week?