The Pittsburgh Steelers looked like the nickel defense would be their bread and butter entering this season, but it hasn’t exactly worked out that way.
Of course, the long-term injury to Ike Taylor and the demotion of Cortez Allen—the team’s two starting cornerbacks—didn’t make that plan any more accessible. But an equally important issue in running the nickel was that teams were able to exploit the package on the ground.
The Steelers have been forced to improvise at times at nose tackle this year with Steve McLendon playing through a shoulder injury suffered in the second game. Over the course of the season, the team has adapted its sub-package strategy, playing the bigger Vince Williams at the buck linebacker position and allowing Lawrence Timmons to slide over to the mack.
Williams played a couple dozen snaps on Sunday against the New York Jets, and all of them came in the nickel defense. Naturally, his primary responsibility was playing the run, but he also rushed the passer a number of times, occasionally even from the edge.
He certainly lived up to the billing as the run-stuffing nickel linebacker late in the first half when he gave Percy Harvin a pop as he tried to take the ball up the middle. Center Nick Mangold had to choose between Timmons and Williams, and he went with the former. That left Williams to step through and make the play after three yards.
Later in the second half, Williams rushed on a stunt, crossing over from off right guard to around the left tackle. The left tackle was not anticipating the linebacker’s rush and wasn’t centered to cut back and pick him up, allowing Williams to knock him off his feet. Chris Johnson merely gave him a chip in the backfield. In the end, he managed to pressure Michael Vick into getting rid of the ball early and influencing an incomplete pass.
Williams came off the edge at the end of the Jets’ first drive of the second half, nearly getting into the throwing lane on a short pass to the right, caught by Eric Decker. Antwon Blake was there to make the tackle, but Williams came in to chase down the play and just missed landing a big shot on the wide receiver that would have been fit for a special teams highlight reel.
He was back playing the run late in the game as the Jets turned their focus to running out the clock. They were facing a third and one in the play above, and turned to Ivory, who took the left side A Gap and barely got the first down.
Williams played up close to the line and tried to hold off the center to allow Timmons to slip through, but it wasn’t enough to get him through cleanly, and Ivory picked up the first down.