There’s no doubt the NFL is changing. Safeties are becoming the key position, trumping inside linebackers who wind up as mismatches against hulking tight ends who run like receivers. Look no further than Pittsburgh, who, after failing to snag an elite ILB, loaded up on safeties in the draft.
Being a “run stopper” alone isn’t good enough to justify a starting spot. Vince Williams knows that too and before last year started, taking over for Lawrence Timmons, he wanted to add more to his game. That meant becoming a pass rusher. And he definitely met that goal.
Talking to reporters during minicamp, Jerry Olsavsky brought that up as one of Williams’ goals last year.
“The traditional guy that I played is different,” he said of the ILB position from when he played in the 90s compared to present day. “That’s why Vince said, ‘you know what? This position is going away. So I better get another skill.’ So he went out and decided how to pass rush.”
Pass rush he did. He set a franchise record for sacks by an off-ball player, recording 8.5 of them in 2017. That was good enough for second on the Steelers, trailing only Cam Heyward’s 12. The motivation behind it wasn’t just the changing landscape of the game but wanting to beat out his former teammate.
“Vince said I want to get five sacks because Lawrence, his highest sack total was 5. And he ended up with 8.5.”
Timmons’ season-high was actually seven, done back in 2009, but either way, Williams comes out the victor between the two. Williams, like the rest of the inside linebacker group, is a self-motivated guy, with no shortage of confidence. Last year, he proved he can play the Buck linebacker spot and wasn’t the liability in coverage some people thought he might be (to be fair, he was also removed from most obvious-pass situations).
As Olsavsky said, the position is a lot different now. In his career, 117 games, 37 of those starts, he intercepted just one pass and recorded 2.5 sacks. But that was fine – the position didn’t require a lot of splash. The standards of today have shifted and Williams has responded to that change.