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Steelers Vertex: Examining the value of Vince Williams

How should Steelers’ fans evaluate Williams’ season, and how should they handle him moving forward?

Baltimore Ravens v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Since one of the most pressing issues facing the Steelers this offseason is how to handle the contracts of a number of players with large salary cap hits, we’re going to take this opportunity to break down the player statistics, salary cap implications, and play on the field to help determine what would be in the Steelers’ best interest. This has been the focus on our Steelers Vertex series over the past several weeks.

Starting off with the obvious choice of Ben Roethlisberger followed by Maurkice Pouncey, Joe Haden, David DeCastro, Stephon Tuitt, and Steven Nelson, we left it up to YOU, the readers, to determine which player we will look at next. Next up is Vince Williams as the top choice in the voter poll. For now, the choices will be players under contract for the 2021 season the Steelers will need to consider if they are going to retain, extend, or release.

Let’s get a quick reminder of where this nerdiness is coming from.

Vertex- a single point where two or more lines cross.

Sometimes to make a great point, it takes two different systems of analysis to come together and build off each other in order to drawl a proper conclusion. In this case, the two methods are statistical analysis and film breakdown. Enter Dave Schofield (the stat geek) and Geoffrey Benedict (the film guru) to come together to prove a single point based on our two lines of thinking.

As stated above, the topic at hand this week is looking at Vince Williams and making a case for what the Steelers should do in regards to his contract in 2021. With only one year left on his current contract, should the Steelers look to retain, extend, or release Williams for this season?

Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.

The Stats Line:

I’m going to give you the stats for Vince Williams, but it’s really going to come down to the film when it comes to determining his value. First of all, it should be noted Williams turned 31 at the end of last season. In 2020, Williams had a solid statistical season in the 14 games in which he appeared. On the year, William said 70 tackles and 3.0 sacks with four quarterback hits and 14 tackles for loss. His tackles for loss had him tied for eighth in the NFL in 2020.

What was interesting with Williams was how well he started off the 2020 season. All three of Williams’ sacks came in the first six games of the season as he also had 12 of his 14 tackles for loss over the same period. All four quarterback hits also occurred in those six games. In those contests, five of the six games was when he was paired with Devin Bush at linebacker.

Before moving on to the film portion, it should be noted that Williams is entering the last year of his contract and counts $7,031,668 towards the 2021 salary cap. Just over $3 million of this number is the dead money associated with Williams where his $4 million base salary would be a complete cap savings should Williams be released.

So what was the big difference between the first six games and the remainder of 2020 for Vince Williams? Let’s see what the film tells us.

The Film Line:

Vince Williams has had two stretches in his career with great statistics: The early part of this season, and the 2017 season when he had 8 sacks, 14 QB hits and 11 tackles for a loss.

Those two time periods have something in common, as Vince Williams was lined up next to Devin Bush in early 2020, and in 2017, got to start next to Ryan Shazier in Shazier’s best, and unfortunately last, season. That season Shazier’s tackles for a loss, sacks and QB hits dropped substantially from his first two seasons in Keith Butler’s defense, as Shazier was more focused on coverage, recording three interceptions and defending 11 passes in 12 games. In 2020, Devin Bush’s tackles for a loss dropped to 0 as he spent the five games he played in also dropping into coverage more, and the Steelers blitzed heavily, turning Vince Williams loose. Williams, for his part, led the NFL in tackles for a loss through 5 games, and was on pace for 6+ sacks. When Vince Williams is paired with an athletic coverage linebacker, he makes a lot of plays in the opposing backfield.

Week 1, 1st quarter, 14:35. Vince Williams (#98) is the linebacker to the left side of the screen.

This play looks simple, Stephon Tuitt eats two blockers and Vince Williams is unblocked for the TFL. Stephon Tuitt absolutely dominates on this play, driving the tackle farther outside and preventing the guard from reach blocking him. But look before the snap, Vince Williams moves to be right behind Tuitt, and he stays directly behind Tuitt until he breaks into the backfield. Williams picks up on the play, and knows that his blocker is going to be engaging Tuitt first. By staying right behind Tuitt that blocker is going to have a hard path to get to Williams, and when Saquon Barkley sees he’s got nowhere to go outside Vince explodes into the backfield to make the play.

Week 3, 1st quarter, 3:48. Vince Williams is the linebacker closest to the Steelers logo.

Vince Williams is in man on the running back here. Any run play here is in trouble, and with the play action Williams just keeps coming, shedding the running back and recording the sack.

Devin Bush allowed the Steelers to let Vince Williams be more aggressive in the 5 games he played, and in the sixth game, facing the Tennessee Titans and their heavier sets, Vince Williams shined.

But Williams’ season isn’t a story of two parts, it’s a story of three parts. As Dave already covered Williams was living in opponent’s backfield for the first 6 games, but when we look at Vince Williams in coverage the season splits into three sections.

Here’s what Pro Football Reference’s advanced stats have for Vince Williams in coverage in 2020:

Weeks 1-5 (w/ Bush): 231 snaps, 13 targets, 47 yards, 1 TD.
Weeks 6-12: 290 snaps, 15 targets, 42 yards, 1 TD.
Week 13-18: 185 snaps, 12 targets, 110 yards, 1 TD.

After Devin Bush was injured Vince Williams stopped being a heavy blitzer, because the Steelers needed him to play a different role, but his coverage numbers were still good.

Week 13, 1st quarter, 9:06. Vince Williams (#98) is the linebacker to the right side of the screen.

Robert Spillane (#41) is the linebacker on the running back on this play, and he’s good in this role, recording a sack, a lot like what Vince Williams was doing early in the season. Meanwhile Vince Williams is manned up on the tight end, and he does a really good job meeting the tight end right at that 5 yard line, slowing his route and then staying with his man as Alex Smith looks that way before getting sacked.

Week 13, 3rd quarter, 14:51. Vince Williams is the linebacker to the bottom of the screen, starting the play just inside the 10 yard line.

Another play showcasing Williams’ intelligence and comfort in the scheme, passing the deep route off to Joe Haden and getting to the underneath route, denying any yards after the catch. The offense ran a play to attack Vince Williams switching coverage and it got them all of 4 yards.

Robert Spillane replacing Devin Bush forced Vince Williams into coverage, but he didn’t get burned, keeping his numbers very similar to what they were with Bush. At least, until Robert Spillane and Joe Haden both left the field.

Week 13, 4th quarter, 10:39. Vince Williams is the linebacker to the top of the screen, with Cameron Sutton outside him at cornerback.

The Steelers had a 14-3 lead when Robert Spillane was injured in Week 13, and they had a 17-10 lead when Joe Haden went down. With Avery Williamson in the Steelers ran more vanilla schemes and with Joe Haden out the flat to that side would be attacked mercilessly in Week 13’s 4th quarter collapse and again in the Wildcard Game.

Compare the above play to this play from Week 12.

Week 12, 1st quarter, 7:04. Joe Haden is the cornerback to the top of the screen, Avery Williamson is the linebacker to his side.

This isn’t Vince Williams, but it’s the same defense as the previous play. When teams go spread with heavier personnel the Steelers love Terrell Edmunds, Joe Haden and Vince Williams on the 2 receiver side. It lets Terrell Edmunds take over the deep route from the outside receiver while Joe Haden jumps the out route attacking the linebacker in coverage. Most of Haden’s 7 interceptions the last two seasons are off plays like this, and Haden’s interceptions dropped in 2020 because teams largely avoid throwing these routes when facing the Steelers.

With Devin Bush, Robert Spillane and Joe Haden all out, Vince Williams was suddenly the Steelers top coverage linebacker and had no help to the outside. Outside of that situation, Vince Williams was absolutely fine in coverage. Sure he got beat occasionally, but he wasn’t a liability until he was asked to do far too much.

The Point:

As long as Vince Williams isn’t asked to be the Steelers primary coverage linebacker he will be a starting caliber linebacker. If Devin Bush is playing, then expect more of the Vince Williams we got in 2017 and early in 2020. It’s important to remember that through 5 games Vince Williams had more tackles for a loss than T.J. Watt, who would end up leading the NFL.

While many are thinking Williams could be a salary cap casualty, saving $4 million doesn’t seem like a huge amount for what the Steelers get from Williams when he’s playing alongside Bush, Spillane, and Haden. Obviously the Steelers are going to need to shed salary cap somewhere, but thinking Vince Williams doesn’t bring enough to the table to justify holding on to isn’t exactly the case.

Past Vertex breakdowns: