By Matthew Marczi
Prior to the first preseason game for the Pittsburgh Steelers, it was my intention to write about Vince Williams as potentially the ninth linebacker on the team’s 53-man roster, which would fly in the face of convention, given their history of keeping a fifth outside linebacker, rather than an inside linebacker.
Part of the argument rested on the versatility of fourth-year inside linebacker Stevenson Sylvester, who had already gotten a lot of work on the outside during the preseason from a year ago and continued to receive practice reps there this year.
Of course, Sylvester was unable to display his versatility in-game on Saturday due to the friendly fire ankle injury that he suffered on special teams. It is also worth noting that the Steelers kept outside linebacker Adrian Robinson as the ninth linebacker a season ago despite the fact that Sylvester and Brandon Johnson—both primarily inside linebackers who have the ability to go outside—were the backup inside linebackers.
However, after the showcase that the eight-deep inside linebacker unit delivered on Saturday night, the case for a fifth inside linebacker for 2013 seems stronger than ever. With a mixture of hungry veterans like Brian Rolle and Kion Wilson sprinkled in with young upside rookies like Williams and Terence Garvin, the cuts at the inside linebacker position may be the most difficult to make after the conclusion of the preseason.
A telling feature speaking directly to the potential for Williams—the second of the team’s two sixth-round draft picks in 2013—however, is the fact that he was called upon to replace Sylvester when the latter was injured. And it is not simply the fact of his replacement, but the reason that he was the replacement.
After all, the fact of the matter is that rookie tryout success story Terence Garvin actually stepped in alongside Marshall McFadden to patrol the middle of the second-team defense first. In fact, outside of one snap—in which Sylvester tried to give his ankle a go—Garvin played the first two possessions with the second-team defense.
One would have to think that linebackers coach Keith Butler called upon the rookies to run with McFadden because veterans Wilson and Rolle had been working as a tandem in camp, otherwise one of those two would have likely jumped ahead in the pecking order for the game.
But why did Butler pull Garvin and insert Williams after two series? According to him, it was because Williams plays “from the neck up”, and with a young backer trying to master the signal-calling responsibilities of the Buck, Butler likes to have a Mack that can help out, as Lawrence Timmons does for Larry Foote.
Williams, of course, has also been learning the Buck, and reports early on from the rookie minicamp were that he was already teaching his fellow first-year players where they need to be. The fact that Butler wanted Williams out there with McFadden in the game to help make the defensive calls shows how far the rookie has come in learning the defense.
However, as is always the case at the bottom of the roster, the main distinction between active roster and practice squad is special teams ability. The fact that Williams is already showing his impressive mental acuity for the linebacker position in Dick LeBeau’s defense is a wonderful thing; however, as a ninth linebacker, it is unlikely to come in handy, especially considering Timmons and Foote rarely miss a snap.