In 2017 – 2018 Vince Williams started all 31 games in which he played amassing good numbers. He totaled 175 tackles, 12.5 sacks, 19 tackles for a loss, 24 quarterback hits and two interceptions taking one back for a touchdown. The former 6th round pick had worked and earned his way into the starting lineup. His eight sacks and 14 quarterback hits in 2017 were second on the team behind only Cam Heyward. He was top three on the team in tackles in both seasons.
In 2019, the team went in another direction and he was regulated to a part time roll. Sadness ensued.
This year has been full of ups and down but we received some good news yesterday when defensive coordinator Keith Butler confirmed what we were all thinking. Vince Williams will be back starting at linebacker in 2020. Williams’ value should not be understated and I took a look at last year’s film to see what he brings to the table.
Pre Snap Adjustments
You don’t have to watch a lot of film to understand how valuable he is before the ball is even snapped. He is a strong communicator often wears the director’s hat to ensure everyone is where they are supposed to be. He understands the defensive scheme so well, knows how to make adjustments based on the offensive alignment or shifts and puts teammates in the right places.
Any linebacker worth his weight in salt is will be very strong at knowing his keys and diagnosing the play quickly to put him into the right position. This is a product of putting in the time in the film room and understanding your opponent’s tendencies to be able to put him into to the right place to make the play or disrupt the play to benefit his teammates. His processing is so good especially versus Gap schemes it allows him to beat blockers to the spot.
Vs Baltimore, he goes in motion before the TE does. That’s a good understanding of the offense.
Balance and Tackling
Watching him reading blocks and adjusting to running backs you notice his balance and ability to play under control. On runs where the running back has multiple gaps to choose from he knows how to show himself to the runner in one gap and adjust with the back as he makes his cut.
While being in position to make a play is important being able to bring down the runner is also important. I looked at the top 15 ILB’s last year in total tackles and they averaged about 9.3% when it came to missed tackles. Over the last two years, per Pro Football Reference, Williams missed tackle average was 9.7% overall. In 2019, it was 6.8% missing only 4 tackles.
At Los Angeles, he reads the run coming his way and presses forward to cut off the angle. Because of the big push from Dan McCullers the runner has to choose inside or outside of that block. Williams comes to balance and shows himself to the inside gap and adjusts with the RB to the outside to make the play.
Gap Fill and Disruption
When he isn’t making the play he is making it easier for his teammates by filling gaps and disrupting the flow of the play. This follows along with his ability to diagnose the play and his willingness to play downhill, take on blockers and clog the lanes. This will force the runner in another direction and hopefully into the waiting arms of a teammate. It doesn’t matter if it’s a pulling lineman or a FB/TE leading the way, Williams knows his role and does it. This unselfishness doesn’t show up in the box score and could cause lower tackle totals but that’s what team players do.
Vs Baltimore, he is going to key on the pulling LG attacking up field and will get low to take out not only the pulling guard but also the leading TE and get in on the tackle.
Coverage Understanding and Execution
Pass coverage may be the least effective aspect of his game which may have led at least in part to the change last year. In the games I watched for this some of the receptions against him were in Zone and one was on a crossing route where the used three receivers to screen him from his responsibility. But I can tell you none were caused from him not knowing his responsibility. He understands trail Man and where his help is, he has solid Zone awareness and knows how to change two way go’s into a one route option.
At Los Angeles, he’s in Man coverage on Hunter Henry (86) on the crossing route and he is stride for stride with him. Henry makes the tough catch despite the tight coverage.
Rush and Spy
While coverage may not be his strong suit that doesn’t mean he has to come off the field. He may be the strongest blitzer they have on the field (although Mike Hilton is very good as well). They like to use him on loops around Heyward to create lanes and he’s one of the best at Green Dog blitzes. The Steelers faced several QB’s with strong running ability last year including Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray and Josh Allen and Williams did a fantastic job when they left the pocket or timing when to apply the pressure.
Though his opportunities were cut by nearly two thirds his pass rush production was about the same showing excellent efficiency.
At Arizona, he’s over the right guard and will spy on Murray. He flows and when he feels Murray has nowhere to go he attacks. As he starts to rush he sees Heyward has an outside lane so he adjusts back inside for the sack.
Vs Buffalo, again over the right guard and spying on Allen. The timing and acceleration are good to apply pressure and force the ball out of his hands.
Analysis and Opinion
Reinserting Williams back into the starting lineup is almost like adding a free agent to a defense that was already impressive. Coupled with the return of Stephon Tuitt, a full season with Minkah Fitzpatrick and the expected improvement of Devin Bush makes this defense really exciting.
I mentioned it last year in one of my Ten Takes that Williams is the attitude of this defense that included this tidbit; “Williams at the LOS chirping at the quarterback when he’s calling an audible where, after the QB called out the Mike, I thought I heard him say, ‘Yeah, that’s me’.”
He has the fire, swagger and physicality that make him a perfect fit in the middle of this defense. His understanding of the defense combined with situational awareness and an unselfish style is what they need in the middle.
He may still be subbed out on some packages but when he is in there it could also free up Bush to do more things as well.
I can’t wait to watch this defense. 2020 better not screw this up.