All week, we heard about the big changes coming to the Pittsburgh Steelers defense. Artie Burns, Cam Sutton inserted into the startling lineup for Coty Sensabaugh and Mike Hilton. Ultimately, those two decisions were quickly reversed, Sensabaugh and Hilton playing the majority of snaps.
One change that did stick? Vince Williams reverting back to the team’s three down linebacker. He kept L.J. Fort off the field, whose three defensive snaps came only when Williams briefly left the game with injury. Recapping Sunday’s win over the New England Patriots, Tomlin immediately pointed to him as a big reason why for the defense’s success.
“I can’t say enough about our ability to communicate,” Tomlin said during his usual Tuesday presser. “I can’t say enough about Vince Williams in what he was able to do in terms of being a central communicator throughout the game. It allowed us to settle in and match some of the pace things they do and things they do very well. I thought communication was an element of that performance.”
Tomlin cited the difficulty of defensive communication while at home. Crowd noise throws the offense off, and it certainly did, the Patriots false started five times Sunday, but it was a similar impact on the defense’s ability to talk with each other.
Williams logged every snap of the game sans the three he missed while getting checked out by the trainers. Communication did seem strong throughout, especially late in the game, minus the Chris Hogan touchdown, a clear coverage bust.
Later, Tomlin was asked to evaluate Williams’ progression over the years.
“His maturation process is a very normal one. He’s a guy who was a later round draft pick, a non-combine invite, who earned his stripes on special teams in the early years. Got the opportunity to play some as a young guy due to circumstance but then had to fall back into a supportive role.”
He played significant snaps his rookie season, a sixth round pick out of Florida State, when Larry Foote was lost for the year in Week One. Then the Steelers drafted Ryan Shazier in 2014, essentially taking Williams’ job, and sending him back to special teams work. It wasn’t until last year, following the team moving on from Lawrence Timmons, that Williams found himself back in a starting role. One that was earned by his play, not simply handed out.
“Really, he never stopped working along the way,” Tomlin said. “And I think that allowed him to ascend through the group and be ready for the challenges we push his way. Whether it’s central communication or leadership or setting the defenses or things of that nature. He’s been here a decent amount of time. He’s a guy who works his tail off to grow in all areas. He’s continually putting himself in position to meet the challenges that the game and his career have put in front of him.”