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Steelers trio of linebackers don't always know their role, but they're executing anyway

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Sean Spence and Vince Williams are splitting snaps in the absence of Ryan Shazier. But Williams is in Nickel, where most would expect Spence to be, and Spence is banging against the run, the role seemingly better suited for Williams. Even the players are confused.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

It's confusing to the fan watching at home.

Even moderately astute viewers can see Steelers linebacker Sean Spence is a better athlete than Vince Williams. Conversely, Williams is a better run-defender. Spence is quicker off of the snap and Williams is stronger and more stout in gap-support.

So why, in the absence of rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier, is Spence being taken out of the team's nickel package while Williams plays in that exclusively?

Even they are a bit puzzled.

Williams, speaking to Tribune Review reporter Ralph N. Paulk, admitted he isn't really clear on his role game-to-game.

"They ask me to go in, and I go in," Williams said, according to Paulk. That's pretty much the way it goes. I go in mostly on nickel packages, but the rhyme and reason for that I couldn't say."

Spence doesn't seem to understand it, either. In the same story, he told Paulk, "Sometimes, you don't understand your role until you get the game plan. Right now, I'm just focusing on stopping the run. I have improved on my tackling and I'm recognizing plays better."

It's all they can do. While the Steelers' run defense hasn't exactly dominated, it has improved from where the team started this season, and it's up considerably game-to-game from where it was last year. They're allowing 107.5 yards per game, 12th in the NFL. Last year, they allowed 115.6 to rank 21st in the league.

A small difference, but an important one. More than anything, that 8-yard difference per game represents fewer big plays. The Steelers were gashed by big runs last season and they've limited them this season. It's still a work-in-progress but, considering it's the second straight year the Steelers have had a rookie starting at inside linebacker (Shazier), it could be worse. Add in the fact that, while Spence isn't considered a rookie, he never played prior to this year, and Williams admittedly was lost for most of last year. Viewed in that light, the level of progress this group has made is exceptional.

Now, if they just knew more about what their roles are.

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