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Thank You, Vince Williams

The writing was on the wall. But it didn’t make the news any easier to stomach. Eight years a Steeler, Vince Williams was released Tuesday.

Williams isn’t someone who is going to the Hall of Fame. He won’t even end up in the Steelers’ Hall of Honor. But he overcame long odds as a 6th round pick. Most of those guys don’t make it, a total afterthought and only footnote in history. So far, he’s spent eight years in the league. Many first round picks, who get chance after chance, don’t last that long.

In their history, Pittsburgh’s drafted 92 players in the sixth round. Only eight of them have played 100+ games in a Steelers’ uniform. Williams is part of that club. Here’s the list.

100+ Games As Steelers (6th Rounders)

1. Tunch Ilkin – 176
2. Bryan Hinkle – 163
3. Dwayne Woodruff – 157
4. Greg Lloyd – 131
5. Gary Dunn – 146
6. Antonio Brown – 130
7. Vince Williams – 121
8. Dale Dodrill – 103

Impressive company to be apart of.

The thing about Williams is that he could’ve played in any of those eras. He could’ve lined up next to Jerry Shipkey in the 1950s. Stood next to Lambert, Ham, Russell. Fit in alongside Mike Merriweather or Chad Brown. He was your classic Steelers’ linebacker. Physical, intense, a great run defender, and a great leader.

He never had much time to sit on the bench either. Williams got thrown into the fire his rookie year, a part-time starter when Larry Foote ruptured his bicep in 2013 and missed the rest of the year. Williams filled in, started 11 games, and recorded 53 tackles. Here’s his first solo tackle, spinning down Bengals’ RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis in Week 2.

 

In a current era of linebackers who run 4.5 and match tight ends vertically, Williams began to feel like a unicorn. In some predictable ways, it hurt him. He was never a great cover linebacker, though he was sufficient and his struggles were often overstated. But he was a great Ying/Yang to Devin Bush, a fantastic Shake/Bake to Ryan Shazier, a duo I wish could’ve played together for longer than they did. They were a special tandem on and off the field. A true football brotherhood.

What made Williams so unique was that physicality. It showed up everywhere. When he got his start on special teams, running down kicks, he would absolutely take people’s heads off whether they had the ball or not. He offered several “welcome to the NFL” moments at Latrobe and when it came to backs on backers, #98 was the last dude you wanted to face. That translated to games. One of the league’s best off-ball blitzers, the Steelers’ scheme suited him perfectly. He blitzed over and over and won over and over. Like the time he bowled over Kareem Hunt twice in the same game.

The funny thing is that Williams wasn’t a big guy. He wasn’t built like Levon Kirkland. He was 6’0, played in the 230s, but had the hit power and play style of someone three inches taller and 20 pounds heavier. He was 6’0, 233, and ran a 4.76 40 yet carved out a long-term NFL role. Pretty remarkable.

His most underappreciated trait was his football IQ. Williams was one of the smartest guys on the team and it made up for that lack of natural athleticism. The defenses gelled better when he was on the field because he was the guy making sure everyone got lined up in the same spot. The team praised him for it from his first year. In 2014, Williams’ first offseason, Kevin Colbert pointed out how smart of a linebacker he was.

“Vince is the one that really solidified spot. And when I say solidify, it’s such a hub of communications inside, Vince showed that he was able to do that and he played pretty good for a rookie sixth-round pick. So we’re hoping that he can make another stride.”

Later in his career, ILBs coach Jerry Olsavksy praised Williams for always tweaking and improving his game.

“Vince always goes into his man cave in the offseason. He comes back and he does different stuff and you’re like, ‘Vince, how did you do this?’ He says, ‘Hell, I’ve been working on it.’ He’s very prideful and he wants to improve his play and be a great player.”

Beyond football, he seemed universally liked by just about everyone. And he made an impact in the community, donating over 1000 laptops to students in the Pittsburgh area this year to assist them with remote learning while schools were closed.

Had the pandemic not existed and the cap crunched, odds are good Williams would’ve remained a Steeler. He wasn’t an overpaid vet who was going to be released no matter the circumstances. He was cut because Pittsburgh had little other choice. Restructures could only get this team so far.

That’s what makes his release all the more disappointing. Williams should still be a Steeler. Now, he’ll continue his career elsewhere. But hopefully he always considers Pittsburgh home.

Thank you, Vince Williams.

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