NFL Nation: Vince Williams

PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers went into the NFL draft with Lawrence Timmons and a lot of question marks at inside linebacker.

Now it might be one of the deepest positions on the team.

If Ryan Shazier is as good as advertised -- and it says here that the former Ohio State star will be another first-round hit for the Steelers -- he and Timmons fill form one of the better inside linebacker tandems in the NFL.

[+] EnlargeRyan Shazier
Elsa/Getty ImagesThe Steelers selected Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier with the 15th overall pick in the first round.
Vince Williams, who started 11 games last season as a rookie, provides quality depth. Undrafted free agent Terence Garvin, who played 15 games last season before hurting his knee, also returns, and he shined on special teams in 2013 while also logging some snaps on passing downs.

The Steelers added more depth at inside linebacker on the third day of the draft when they picked UCLA's Jordan Zumwalt in the sixth round.

“Great competition at inside linebacker,” linebackers coach Keith Butler said, “we are going to have some.”

Sean Spence could also be part of the competition when the Steelers open training camp in late July.

Spence, who suffered a career-threatening knee injury in the Steelers' final preseason game in 2012, has made remarkable progress. The former third-round pick has been working with his teammates in the Steelers' offseason program after receiving medical clearance from the team doctors.

“He looks real good to me,” Butler said. “It's getting really close to being miraculous.”

Spence shredded his knee in his final preseason game as a rookie as he tore several ligaments and also suffered nerve damage. It is still too early to tell how much the Miami (Fla.) product will be able to contribute to the Steelers, especially since his game was predicated on speed.

But Spence will be a player to watch during the offseason practices, which start at the end of the month and conclude with a mandatory minicamp in the middle of June.

“We will see how the knee holds up when he starts hitting and things like that,” Butler said. “He is such an exceptional young man and you hope that it works out for him, and I think it will.”

If that happens it will be quite a bonus for the Steelers, who would further bolster themselves at inside linebacker if Spence is able to play again.

“In the coaching sessions that he's been able to take part in he looks great, he looks healthy,” Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said. “We hope to have him in the mix. We can never have enough good players at any one position.”
videoPITTSBURGH -- The pick: Dri Archer, RB, Kent State

My take: The Steelers added more speed, and arguably the fastest player in the draft, when they took Archer in the third round Friday night. This seems like a little early to take a running back, even one who could add a dynamic element to the offense. Archer is a blur -- running backs coach James Saxon said the Steelers timed him in under 4.2 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine -- but he is also small. Not that the Steelers will ask the 5-foot-8, 173-pounder to shoulder much of a workload. Archer will be used as a situational back as well as a kick returner, and he averaged 7.8 yards per carry last season while also catching 25 passes for 327 yards.

The Steelers tried this two years ago with ultra-fast Chris Rainey, and he was pedestrian even before they cut ties with him due to off-the-field issues. They must think Archer is a much better player, and his versatility and production at Kent State impressed the Steelers as much as his sheer speed. Archer rushed for 2,342 career yards and had 1,194 career receiving yards while also starring as a return specialist for the Golden Flashes. He should at least make an impact in the return game as a rookie.

Still waiting: Who would have guessed this? Two days and three rounds into the draft, the Steelers have yet to take a cornerback or a wide receiver. They have addressed inside linebacker, defensive end and running back, with only the middle position qualifying as one of serious need. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said he is not worried about the Steelers' depth at cornerback. "I feel good about the cornerbacks that we have, and we have more numbers there than people realize," LeBeau said. "We may have great players in the building; they just haven’t had the chance to show us they are greater."

What’s next: The Steelers will be plenty busy Saturday. They have one pick in the fourth round -- which starts at noon -- two in the fifth, two in the sixth and one in the seventh. The Steelers have made some late-round finds in recent years, getting wide receiver Antonio Brown, left tackle Kelvin Beachum and linebacker Vince Williams in the sixth round or later since 2010.

Countdown to combine: Steelers

February, 19, 2014
Feb 19
PITTSBURGH -- With the NFL combine starting Wednesday in Indianapolis, we’re taking a look at positions of need and who the Pittsburgh Steelers might be looking at during the combine at those positions.

Position of need: Inside linebacker

The Steelers need depth at the position and possibly a long-term starter. Rookie Vince Williams started 11 games at left inside linebacker following the loss of Larry Foote in the 2013 season opener. Williams, a sixth-round draft pick, made steady improvement, but struggled in coverage. It is too early to tell whether he is a viable NFL starter in the mold of Foote, who stood out against the run, or is better suited as a reserve who is also a core special-teams player. Foote has one year left on his contract, but given his age -- the 12th-year veteran turns 34 in June -- and the fact that he is coming back from a ruptured bicep, there is no guarantee he returns for another season. Stevenson Sylvester will be an unrestricted free agent next month.

Three players the Steelers might be targeting

Chris Borland, Wisconsin: The Steelers, like most teams, should fall in love with his game tape. Borland made tackles all over the field at Wisconsin, racking up 416 stops during a career in which he earned first-team All-Big Ten honors three times. Borland burnished his reputation as a guy who can simply play at the Senior Bowl ,and ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. ranks the 5-foot-11, 245-pounder second among inside linebackers. Concerns about his height and short arms, which raise questions about whether he will struggle to shed blocks at the next level, could hurt Borland’s draft stock. Couple that with the belief many teams have that inside linebackers can be found later in the draft, and there is a good chance Borland will still be available when the Steelers pick in the second round.

Christian Kirksey, Iowa: Kirksey played outside linebacker in college, but he would likely move inside if drafted by a team that plays a 3-4 defense like the Steelers. Kirksey had an outstanding senior season -- he recorded 104 tackles despite getting overshadowed by teammates James Morris and Anthony Hitchens -- and he drew good reviews from his week at the Senior Bowl. The 6-2, 234-pounder has good size and athleticism, and Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz has raved about his character. Kirksey could be among the inside linebackers available to the Steelers in the middle rounds if they address other positions earlier in the draft.

C.J. Mosley, Alabama: The consensus All-American and possibly the most ready-made NFL player in the draft might not even get to the Steelers at No. 15 overall. The 6-2, 228-pound Mosley is a three-down linebacker who should make an immediate impact, if not start right away. The hunch here is that Mosely does make it past the first 14 picks with a handful of teams in front of the Steelers desperate for quarterbacks and the de-valuing of inside linebacker in the draft in general. If Mosley, who is expected to test well in all aspects at the combine, is available when the Steelers make their first-round pick, it will be very temping for them to take him and pair him with Lawrence Timmons. That, if Mosley is as good as advertised, would help the Steelers improve a run defense that allowed 125 yards per game in 2013.
How well did the Pittsburgh Steelers draft last April? Ask me in three years.

I think it takes at least three years before you can accurately -- and fairly -- judge a draft class. That said, 12 games have provided enough of a sample size to assess how the Steelers’ rookies have fared in their first NFL season.

Here is a look at where the players in the Steelers’ most recent draft picks stand three-quarters of the way into the 2013 season.

1. Jarvis Jones, OLB: Jones has not made much of an impact as a pass-rusher, and the Steelers took the former Georgia star 17th overall to get after the quarterback. But it takes time for outside linebackers in Dick LeBeau’s 3-4 defense to develop, so it’s way too early to read much into the fact that Jones has just one sack and 30 tackles. Just as paramount as the 6-foot-2, 245-pounder improving his grasp of the defense in the offseason is Jones adding bulk.

[+] EnlargeLe'Veon Bell
Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY SportsLe'Veon Bell has been one of the bright spots from Pittsburgh's latest draft class.
2. Le'Veon Bell, RB: The early returns are good on this pick as Bell is almost a lock to win the Joe Greene Award, which is given to the team’s top rookie. The former Michigan State star is already a focal point of the offense, and he is the kind of all-around back around which the Steelers can build. Bell is nearing 1,000 yards of total offense -- he has 847 -- and he is only going to get better as a runner.

3. Markus Wheaton, WR: The Steelers have gotten minimal production from Wheaton, which has been surprising considering the praise he received from some of the veteran players before the start of the season. Wheaton, who has six catches for 64 yards, hasn’t gotten on the field much as a No. 4 wide receiver, and he missed four games after needing surgery to fix a broken right pinkie. His development is crucial, especially if Emmanuel Sanders signs elsewhere after the season as an unrestricted free agent.

4a. Shamarko Thomas, S: The former Syracuse star has played well enough to get on the field extensively as a third safety in the Steelers’ quarter package, though he missed two games recently with a high-ankle sprain. Thomas, who has 29 tackles, has to be a big part of the future with Ryan Clark unlikely to return after the season and Troy Polamalu also anything but guaranteed to be back in 2014 since he is set to make just over $8 million in the final year of his contract.

4b. Landry Jones, QB: Jones has not been on the active roster for any game this season. That is actually a good thing as it means Ben Roethlisberger has stayed healthy, and indeed the 10th-year veteran has avoided the kind of injuries that have sidelined him in past seasons. It’s too early to call this a wasted pick but it certainly looks like the Steelers could have gone in another direction with the second of their two fourth-round selections, especially since they had signed a proven backup in Bruce Gradkowski before they drafted Jones.

5. Terry Hawthorne, CB: The Illinois product did not show enough during offseason practices or training camp for the Steelers to even keep him on the practice squad after cutting Hawthorne at the end of August. Hawthorne couldn’t overcome offseason knee surgery, and he is currently a free agent.

6a. Justin Brown, WR: He lost the the battle for the final wide receiver spot on the 53-man roster to former Penn State teammate Derek Moye. Brown has been on the practice squad all season, and he will be given a chance to make the team next season. He also has potential as a punt returner.

6b. Vince Williams, LB: The former Florida State star has been thrust into the starting lineup due to a season-ending bicep injury sustained by Larry Foote. Williams has probably played as well as can be expected but it’s too early to tell whether he has a future with the Steelers as a starter or is more suited for a backup role. Williams has 40 tackles, but he has played sparingly in recent week as he comes off the field in the quarter package and has also lost some snaps to undrafted rookie Terence Garvin.

7. Nick Williams, DE: Another small-school project for Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell. The Steelers saw enough from Williams to place him on injured reserve instead of waiving him with an injury settlement in late August. Williams is working his way back from a knee injury, and the offseason will be a critical one for the Samford product.

Overall: Could have been better but could have been worse, too. And that assessment comes with the caveat that it’s way too early to label any of the rookies, which include Garvin, guard Chris Hubbard (practice squad), defensive end Brian Arnfelt (practice squad) and Devin Smith (practice squad) as anything but works in progress.

Tomlin stands behind Dick LeBeau

November, 5, 2013
PITTSBURGH -- Here are some takes from Mike Tomlin's weekly news conference:
  • The Steelers gave up the most points and yards in a game in franchise history last Sunday at New England. That didn't stop Tomlin from giving a vote of confidence to safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark. Same with Dick LeBeau. Asked why he still has faith in his long-term defensive coordinator, Tomlin said, "Because he's Dick LeBeau. Does that answer your question?"
  • Tomlin revealed why he didn't make any changes to the depth chart following the 55-31 loss at New England. He said effort wasn't a problem against the Patriots and that the Steelers were just beaten soundly. "I think we can grow from this and move forward," Tomlin said.
  • Leading receiver Antonio Brown was benched near the end of the Patriots loss because of what Tomlin called a lack of execution on assignments. But Tomlin chalked that up to frustration and said Brown will be back in the starting lineup this week. Tomlin stood by his decision to leave quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the game at the end of a blowout loss.
  • Starting right guard David DeCastro (ankle) and wide receiver Markus Wheaton (finger) have been cleared to practice fully Wednesday when the Steelers start preparation for the Buffalo Bills. Cornerback Ike Taylor and inside linebacker Vince Williams have to pass requisite concussion tests before each is allowed to return to action.
  • Tomlin said a decision hasn't been made on inside linebacker Sean Spence, who is working his way back from a career-threatening knee injury. The Steelers have until 4 p.m. Wednesday to place Spence on the 53-man roster or injured reserve, or release him. The Steelers aren't going to release Spence, their third-round draft pick in 2012, and Tomlin said he likes the progress Spence has made.

  • Check back for more in-depth breakdown of Tomlin's presser throughout the day.

Upon Further Review: Steelers Week 9

November, 4, 2013
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A review of four hot issues from the Pittsburgh Steelers' 55-31 loss to the New England Patriots.

[+] EnlargeLaMarr Woodley
Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesLaMarr Woodley had only two solo tackles in the loss to the Patriots.
Under the microscope: The Steelers simply aren't getting enough out of LaMarr Woodley, the highest paid defensive player in franchise history. Woodley has five sacks to lead the Steelers, but the veteran outside linebacker is nowhere near one of the top pass-rushers in the NFL. Nor has he done nearly enough to justify the six-year, $61.5 million contract the Steelers signed him to in August 2011. Woodley had eight tackles and a fumble recovery against the Patriots, but he didn't record a sack nor was he even credited with a quarterback hurry, even though New England started new right tackle Marcus Cannon. Outside linebacker Jason Worilds, meanwhile, had a pair of sacks and he tied with defensive end Cameron Heyward for the team lead in quarterback hurries with two.

Blitz stymies Big Ben: The offense rolled up almost 479 total yards, but it was hardly blameless in the 24-point loss. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger committed three turnovers and he struggled against the Patriots' blitz. Roethlisberger threw for 400 yards and four touchdowns, but he completed just 3 of 8 passes for 38 yards and one score when the Patriots blitzed the 10th-year veteran, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Roethlisberger also threw both of his interceptions when New England sent an extra defender after the quarterback, and at least two of his five sacks were the result of Roethlisberger holding onto the ball too long.

Rookie watch: The Patriots are 7-2 despite having 12 rookies on their 53-man roster. First-year wide receiver Aaron Dobson caught five passes for 130 yards and a pair of touchdowns, magnifying how little the Steelers have gotten out of their rookie class. Outside linebacker Jarvis Jones has barely been serviceable beyond special teams and safety Shamarko Thomas took his lumps against the Patriots with the rest of the secondary. Wide receiver Markus Wheaton has missed the last four games while recovering from surgery that fixed a broken right pinkie, and the Steelers have gone 16 games without a 100-yard rusher, even though rookie Le'Veon Bell has established himself as the clear No. 1 back.

Injury update: The Steelers did not come out of the game unscathed from an injury standpoint, but they did not have a laundry list of injuries, either. Cornerback Ike Taylor and inside linebacker Vince Williams each sustained concussions and right tackle Marcus Gilbert left the game with an ankle injury. Gilbert's injury does not appear to be serious, and the Steelers are hopeful of getting right guard David DeCastro back Sunday against the Bills. DeCastro did not play against the Patriots due to an ankle injury.

Tomlin on O-line, Big Ben and blame game

September, 24, 2013
PITTSBURGH -- There is at least some positive news on the Steelers front.

“If you look at us from an injury standpoint going into this game, we’re the best that we’ve been,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday.

Indeed, running back Le’Veon Bell will play Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings barring a setback this week in practice.

[+] EnlargeBen Roethlisberger
Jason Bridge/USA TODAY SportsQB Ben Roethlisberger has been under heavy heat this season as his offensive line has struggled.
Tomlin said he also is “optimistic” that starting cornerback Cortez Allen will return after missing the past two games because of a sprained ankle. And tight end Heath Miller, who had reconstructive knee surgery in late December, won’t be restricted at all after playing last Sunday night -- his first game in nine months.

Here are some other Tomlin takes from the seventh-year coach’s weekly news conference:

  • Tomlin, like quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, expressed faith in the Steelers’ beleaguered offensive line.“I see improvement in the group,” Tomlin said. “I see improvement in the unit. Obviously not enough. Our quarterback is still being pressured too often. We’re turning the ball over some because of it. ”

    Tomlin said the Steelers will continue to look at different combinations along the line, which means Kelvin Beachum is likely to spell both left tackle Mike Adams and right tackle Marcus Gilbert as he did last Sunday night against the Bears.

    But Tomlin is pleased with how the offensive linemen are trying to work through the adversity.

    “I like the way they’re showing mettle from a mental toughness standpoint,” he said. “We’re experiencing some frustrating times but frustration doesn’t solve the issue. Work does and they are taking a nice, businesslike approach to that work.”
  • The Steelers have vowed that panic won’t set in following an 0-3 start, and Tomlin said that starts with him.“We’re all falling short right now, and I mean that, coaches included,” Tomlin said. “So we’re not trying to throw anybody under the bus or identify anybody as an Achilles heel or a weak link. The reality is that we all need to work collectively together to solve our issues. We’re just going to roll our sleeves up, keep our mouths shut and take what comes with the position we’re in.”
  • Kion Wilson is still atop the depth chart at right inside linebacker, but rookie Vince Williams played more there against the Bears and appears to be making a real push for the starting job.Tomlin said Williams, a sixth-round draft pick, has been impressive in calling the defenses as well as in other areas of communication.

    “I think he’s winning the confidence of the veteran players from that standpoint,” Tomlin said.

    Tomlin said there will be an ongoing competition between Williams and Wilson.

    “We’ll continue to play he and Kion,” Tomlin said, “in an effort to get the best out of both until we get some clarity in terms of who is going to be the guy that’s going to rise up and seize the spot.”
  • Tomlin agreed with Roethlisberger, upon further review, that the Steelers quarterback did not lose two fumbles in the 40-23 loss to the Bears because he wasn’t more careful with the ball.“I think a lot of it had to do with what the Chicago Bears did,” Tomlin said. “They’re 3-0 at this point for a reason.”

    But, Tomlin added, “I expect Ben to be better. Ben expects himself to be better.”

Baron Batch was bad fit for Steelers

August, 26, 2013
Le'Veon Bell’s foot injury probably cost third-year running back Baron Batch any chance of making the Steelers. Batch was among the players cut Sunday as the Steelers trimmed their roster to 75 players, and he was simply a luxury the team couldn’t afford with its running game in such flux.

You can win with players like Baron Batch. He is excellent on special teams and is a more than willing and able blocker, especially when it comes to blitzing linebackers. The former seventh-round pick does all of the little things well and has a heart the size of his native Texas.

Batch would be an ideal fourth running back on a team that has a feature back since he could play primarily on special teams and provide injury insurance. But he wasn’t a good fit on a team that will go with a running back by committee -– at least until Bell is healthy and able to fill the role of feature back.

Releasing Batch before the final cut might have come as a surprise to some Steelers fans. But it is probably a measure of how highly the Steelers think of Batch, as a person and a professional. The timing of his release gives Batch a chance to catch on somewhere else and get a couple of days to impress his new team.

The release of Stevenson Sylvester, the other veteran cut on Sunday, leaves the Steelers with very little experience behind Lawrence Timmons and Larry Foote at inside linebacker.

It all but assures Marshall McFadden and rookie Vince Williams, a sixth-round pick last April, of making the 53-man roster.

The only draft pick right now that won’t make the 53-man roster is seventh-rounder Nick Williams, who has been shut down by a knee injury. The Steelers liked enough of what they saw from Williams, a defensive end, that they put him on the reserve/injured list instead of the waived/injured list.

Cornerback Terry Hawthorne (fifth round) and wide receiver Justin Brown (sixth round) are battling for roster spots, and I think Hawthorne makes the team, but Brown might have too much to overcome -- namely his former Penn State teammate Derek Moye and the real possibility that the Steelers only keep four wide receivers.

Moye appears to have separated himself among the wide receivers who aren't a lock to make the team. But he could get caught in a numbers cruch if the Steelers have to carry an extra tight end or running back because of injuries.
A quick recap of what the teams in the division did in the final two rounds ...

CINCINNATI BENGALS: Nebraska RB Rex Burkhead (sixth round) is smart, competitive and versatile (can line up in wildcat). There are questions about durability considering his injury history. ... Arkansas WR Cobi Hamilton (sixth round) is a big possession receiver and strong blocker. He has to prove he can get separation. ... Ohio State OT Reid Fragel (seventh round) moved from tight end to the offensive line last year, so he needs to work on his technique. He plays with an edge. ... South Carolina C T.J. Johnson (seventh round) uses his size well in the run game but looks heavy-footed in pass protection.

CLEVELAND BROWNS: Yes, the Browns did actually draft some players on Day 3. Notre Dame S Jamoris Slaughter (sixth round) is about 90 percent recovered from a ruptured Achilles tendon, which caused him to fall from being a third-round prospect. He is known as a leader with good football IQ. ... East Central Oklahoma DE Armonty Bryant (seventh round) is a character risk after being arrested for selling marijuana to undercover police. On the field, he finished with a school-record 26.5 sacks. ... Chadron State guard Garrett Gilkey (seventh round) is a Division II tackle who will move to guard. He's added 70 pounds since high school.

BALTIMORE RAVENS: Notre Dame DE Kapron Lewis-Moore (sixth round) tore his ACL in the BCS championship game and may sit out this season. He's a blue-collar prospect who has had trouble staying healthy. ... Colorado State-Pueblo guard Ryan Jensen (sixth round) is a small-school four-year starter at tackle who will move inside in the NFL. He plays with a mean streak. ... Elon WR Aaron Mellette (seventh round) has good size (6-feet-2) and doesn't shy away from contact. He was outclassed against big-school defenders at the Senior Bowl. ... California CB Marc Anthony (seventh round) is a physical press corner who doesn't have the closing speed to match up with faster receivers.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS: Penn State's Justin Brown (sixth round) is the second wide receiver drafted by the Steelers this week. Brown brings size (6-3) but not game-breaking speed. ... Florida State ILB Vince Williams (sixth round) is a two-down player who can stop the run. He will provide depth because the Steelers don't expect Sean Spence (knee injury) to play this season. ... Samford DT Nicholas Williams (seventh round) is a raw prospect who is a former basketball standout. He has upside as a pass-rusher.