Entering the 2016 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers were looking to ditch the rotations at the linebacker position—both outside, especially, as well as inside—but due to the usual yearly circumstances, namely injuries, they have been forced to use a number of players, and now seem poised to continue to do so.
At the start of the season, they looked like they had it set up for Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier to run the gauntlet and log every snap that they could, outside of when the Steelers moved to their dime defense, which was a trend that began in earnest after the bye week in 2015.
But Shazier has struggled to stay healthy this year, and has been shuffled in and out of game while nursing a knee injury. Vince Williams started three games in his place, and earned positive reviews. And even when Shazier finally returned after that, it was Williams who started, though Shazier saw more snaps.
Recently, according to Chris Adamski for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Steelers offensive coordinator Keith Butler suggested that he would continue to rotate his inside linebackers regardless of health, after Shazier said after the Patriots game that his snap count had nothing to do with health.
Butler even went so far as to say that the team would rotate three linebackers, which suggests that Timmons could also see his snap count reduced. Williams may sub in for both Shazier and Timmons going forward. It is possible that the rotation may even result in a fairly equitable distribution of snaps.
During his three-game starting cameo, Williams recorded 31 tackles and two sacks, which represents the majority of his production for the season—for obvious reasons. While rotating with Shazier on Sunday, he recorded four tackles, while the former recorded two.
Which Shazier being in and out of the lineup, the Steelers have been counting upon Timmons to play more snaps—not that it has been anything new for him to log an extreme number of snaps. Almost up to the moment that they started rotating him out in the dime defense last year, he had logged nearly every snap on defense.
But it did seem to be an anticipation that the Steelers were looking to lighten his load this year, and Williams’ contract extension during the offseason obviously indicated that they wanted him to stick around and perhaps even play a bigger role.
It will be interesting to see how this possible strategy takes shape as they explore avenues during their bye week, but Williams has obviously logged time both at the buck and the mack position over the course of his career. He started at the buck during his rookie season before Timmons took over that spot with the drafting of Shazier.
I made the suggestion throughout the offseason that the Steelers may rotate Williams in Timmons’ spot as they look to transition at the position. With Shazier’s injury, he may have expanded his workload during the 2016 season.