The Pittsburgh Steelers for the first time in his six-year career were without Vince Williams due to injury. The only other game he had ever failed to dress for was the opening week of his rookie season, when he was the last man on the totem pole. He would go on the start the majority of that season, albeit due to injury, and heavily subbed out in sub-packages.
He became an every-down player this season with the loss of Ryan Shazier, however, having originally entered the starting lineup full-time a year ago. He suffered a hamstring injury last week that kept him out yesterday, and the Steelers had no singular plan to replace him.
Instead, they worked in a mixture of Tyler Matakevich and L.J. Fort, though rookie Matthew Thomas does not appear to have been given any snaps on defense. And upon initial impression, it doesn’t seem as though the rotation at inside linebacker was a disaster, communicatively or otherwise.
“Tyler and L.J. played so well”, T.J. Watt told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review after the game about his two, uh, elder backup teammates. “We have so much confidence in them that we don’t have any wavering opinion whether they are in the game or not”.
Officially, Fort was credited with six solo tackles during the game, including a tackle for loss. He was also the one who recovered a fumble from a strip sack by Watt, doing so in the end zone for a defensive touchdown. The veteran was tasked with playing in sub-packages.
Matakevich started in the 3-4 ‘base’ defense, which is admittedly used less frequently than sub-packages these days. He recorded four tackles, in addition to another two tackles on special teams. Cameron Sutton was the dimebacker for this game, and he added four tackles as well.
The rotational pairing also got complimentary salutations from the man they replaced, as well as the man they played next to.
Williams said that Matakevich and Fort “were awesome” and that he was “so proud of them boys”, adding that getting the win made sitting out the game much easier, even though he described being forced to watch from the sidelines as “pretty terrible”.
Jon Bostic, the team’s other inside linebacker, said that they all hope Williams is back next week—the team does have a bye week after their next game—but that there is a standard for backups and they lived up to them.
“The coaches had faith to put L.J. and Tyler in the game and go out there and make plays and fly around and have fun”, he said. Both of them did so. Fort also had a sack in the game, the second in his Steelers career and third overall.
My biggest concern going into the game was that the shift in personnel at such a key defensive spot would lead to communication issues, but that mercifully didn’t appear to be the case. Should Williams miss another game, it will be interesting to see if they mirror their approach from yesterday’s performance in terms of usage.