Steelers coach Mike Tomlin announced early in the week that linebackers Ryan Shazier, Sean Spence and Vince Williams would split reps at inside linebacker opposite Lawrence Timmons when the Steelers take on the Ravens on Sunday Night Football in Week 9.
Tomlin explained it more as a situation in which three linebackers have played well enough and deserve to get on the field. But it would appear the decision is based more on matchups.
Williams certainly isn't the best pass-defending linebacker the league will see this year, but his run-stopping ability, particularly from a mental perspective, has improved quite a bit from where it was last year when he was thrown into the fire as a rookie.
That limited experience is still more than either Spence or Shazier have, and the rotation system is designed to not let Baltimore scheme an offense predicated on any one of the three players - all outstanding in some ways but limited in others.
Their combined strength will make the Steelers' defense more versatile, but it's likely Williams' reps will be distributed chiefly on run-likely downs.
Enter Baltimore's Justin Forsett, one of the best acquisitions made in the NFL in 2014.
His streak of six consecutive games with a run of 20 yards or longer was broken in Cincinnati's 27-24 win over the Ravens in Week 8. He has 571 rushing yards this season and the Ravens have done a good job limiting his carries to keep him fresh. Easily the most dangerous stretch-zone option the Ravens have in their powerful running game, stopping Forsett will require Williams to play with discipline in terms of his gap assignments.
This will be a key component of the game. The Steelers have more strength on the edge than they had in Week 2 when the Ravens methodically dominated the Steelers in a rhythm-based, short-passing game set up by excellent running. The Steelers had Shazier in that game and the Ravens went after him frequently.
The addition of Spence and Williams to Shazier strongly suggests they won't allow the Ravens to pick on one of them the whole game. If Williams can get stops against the run and force the Ravens into third-and-long situations, the pass-rushing capabilities of Shazier and Spence could create the pressure the Steelers have failed to achieve against the Ravens in their last few meetings.