Vince Williams to get opportunity to plug inside linebacker hole with Steelers

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If this draft had been based on needs, then the Steelers last weekend ignored one of their neediest positions -- inside linebacker. Or did they?

They passed on Manti Te'o, passed on Kevin Minter, passed on Michael Mauti. Just as they passed on Penn State's Sean Lee four years ago in favor of Jason Worilds, the Steelers looked to fill their need at outside linebacker before they worried about the inside.

Linebackers coach Keith Butler made his pitch to general manager Kevin Colbert to draft an inside linebacker to pair with first-round pick Jarvis Jones.

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"If they had done what I felt like doing, we would have taken one in the second round," Butler said. "As I told them, last time we picked first and second with linebackers we won the Super Bowl two years later. We didn't go to it, we won it. I tried to make that argument, it didn't work. It worked for one round, but it didn't work for the second round."

That draft Butler referred to was the first with Mike Tomlin as Steelers coach (2007), when they drafted inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons in the first round and outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley in the second. Both have made their impacts on defense inside and out.

Timmons was their best defensive player in 2012, and Larry Foote not only was their second-leading tackler, but also an all-around productive player with four sacks, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and 11 quarterback pressures. He also will turn 33 years old next month, and there is little else behind those two on the inside.

The question the Steelers cannot yet answer not only would be who ultimately will succeed Foote, but also who would replace Foote or Timmons this season if an injury requires it?

They thought they had that covered last year when they drafted Sean Spence in the third round. He had a brilliant preseason, leading the Steelers in tackles before his left knee was badly injured in the final game against Carolina. A nerve injury was the most serious, and the Steelers doubt he will play again because of it.

"We're going to ride with him for another year I think," Butler said. "Hopefully, his knee will respond, and he can play again. I don't think he is going to be [able to do that]. It will be miraculous if he does come back. It will be miraculous if he comes back next year. We are going to take a chance on him and see if he can come back. To me, he is worth every bit of that."

So they knew heading into 2013 they not only would be without Spence, but also had little else to count on behind their two starters.

They did not think strongly enough about veteran Stevenson Sylvester to tender him an offer as a restricted free agent. That made him an unrestricted free agent. He reacted to the indifference the rest of the NFL paid him by signing with the Steelers last month, for only one year, which will make him a free agent again in 2014.

Butler acknowledged it will be a make-or-break season for Sylvester.

"That is something I talked to him about at the end of the season. ... Sly was injured. We had little nagging injuries here and there. We had a few of those last year. We have to eliminate those and keep ourselves in position where we are available and can play during the year and not be sitting on the sideline watching the game with me because they have an injury. So we have to do things to try and correct that if we can."

That brought them in the sixth round Saturday to Vince Williams, whose resume looks like one right out of the Foote biography. Like Foote, Williams is 6 feet 1 and started two seasons at middle linebacker at a big school (Florida State). There, he spearheaded a defense that led the country in fewest yards allowed per play (3.86) and ranked second in total yards allowed per game and sixth in points allowed and rushing yards allowed.

The middle linebacker in that defense must have done something right.

"The thing that attracts us to him is that he will hit you," Butler said. "There are two things you can't teach linebackers in this league. One of them is how fast are you going to be and the other one is will you hit somebody.

"That is something I have said time and time again. I have always believed this even when I played and from watching the guys I have played with. Two things that I am not going to be able to teach you -- one of them is to hit you and the other one is to run."

One reason the 250-pound Williams was not drafted higher was that Florida State replaced him with a defensive back on passing downs. At least, Butler noted, they did not put another linebacker in for him in those situations. Foote once came off the field on third downs, too; now he stays.

"We will make that judgment when we get to training camp whether he is capable of being a three-down linebacker as opposed to being a two-down linebacker," Butler said.

The judgment on whether they have someone to replace Foote in a future lineup will come later.

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For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette on the Steelers at www.post-gazette.com/plus. Ed Bouchette: ebouchette@post-gazette.com and Twitter @EdBouchette.


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