I’m bringing back a series I had a lot of fun exploring the last several offseasons. Every player wants to improve, to elevate his game in all areas from one season to the next. Understanding that, we’re going to isolate just one area, one faction of a player’s game. The biggest area for improvement.
Vince Williams – Defend The Angle Route
First things first. Williams needs to make the team first. And his roster spot isn’t set in stone with a minimum-level base salary with no guaranteed money and Robert Spillane pushing him for a starting spot. In a best-case scenario, the Steelers will probably use a rotation of Williams and Spillane — Williams in the team’s base 3-4, Spillane in nickel, and Bush as the every-down player.
Setting all that aside for a second, Williams had a tough 2020 in coverage. He was never an elite cover linebacker before then, far from it, but the numbers and the tape were always much better than perception. Last year was different. Here’s what happened when offenses targeted him.
Vince Williams: 15/20, 181 yards, 4 TDs, 0 INTs
That’s a QB rating of 141.9, the worst figure of anyone on the team. To be fair, the Steelers didn’t always do him favors and put him in difficult matchups, like the touchdown he gave up to Ravens’ WR Miles Boykin mid-season. Unfair matchup to a guy like Williams, but he still gets charged against in the stats.
I went back and viewed all 15 completions he allowed last season. There weren’t any egregious, cringe-worthy plays. But he did have issue with one of the most common routes linebackers are asked to cover: Angle (or Texas) routes by the running back. An option route that allows the back to either run to the flat or “angle” his route to the inside and over the middle.
Williams gave up three such catches last season. One against the Broncos’ Melvin Gordon, another versus the Eagles’ Miles Sanders, and the last one against the Colts’ Nyheim Hines. I’ve compiled all three below, and we’ll go through them after the clips.
1. Melvin Gordon’s touchdown. Admittedly, a great throw by QB Jeff Driskel. This isn’t an easy play for Williams or any linebacker to make. Some of this just comes down to Williams not being a great athlete to make a high-quality play at the catch point. There probably isn’t a lot he can do here, knowing he needed to be patient and wait for Gordon to declare his route. Still, it’s a touchdown given up.
2. Miles’ Sanders’ catch. Williams opens up a bit too wide here and gives up ground as Sanders cuts to the inside on the angle. He’s probably protecting himself against Sanders running vertically the way Gordon did, but lacks the quickness to close. He goes for the breakup and misses with his inside hand and can’t make the tackle with his outside hand. Pretty good technique overall, just can’t make either play. Sanders is able to generate YAC and turn this into an 11-yard gain.
3. Nyheim Hines’ catch. Not faulting Williams for giving up the catch. He’s out-leveraged on the flat and there’s nothing he can do. But he does miss the tackle here and allows a couple yards of YAC. What should’ve been a catch for virtually no gain ends up picking up five.
To his credit, Williams did have one good play on this route later in the year. Against Cowboys’ RB Tony Pollard in Week 9, he shows great patience to stay square and read the hip of the back as he declares his route to the inside. Then he drives on the football and makes the stick for just a gain of one.
Those are the plays Williams will need to make in these situations going forward. If and when he is on the field, Williams will often match up on the running back. So showing patience and finishing the play will be critical to him improving on his 2020 numbers.