The Steelers hoped to have their first rookie linebacker start for them this season since Kendrell Bell did it 12 years ago, and they have.
It’s just not their first-round pick, Jarvis Jones. Rather, Vince Williams, their second choice in the sixth round of the draft, No. 206 overall, starts at inside linebacker for them, and he’s coming off one of his best games.
“He’s doing a good job, he’s getting better,” said veteran linebacker Larry Foote. “I like the excitement and enthusiasm he plays with. You need that to be good in this league.”
Foote not only is one of Williams’ main boosters, but he also boosted him right into the job when his biceps blew out in the first game of the season. The Steelers first tried Kion Wilson at the buck position, but after two games they turned to Williams, and he has been there the past six.
That’s more than Jones has started at outside linebacker. He started four games before they demoted him in favor of Jason Worilds.
Williams and the mack inside linebacker, Lawrence Timmons, earned high grades for their play last week in stopping the Buffalo Bills’ seventh-ranked running game.
“Vince has been getting better every week,” said defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. “I think he continued to grow. He might have been more visible [vs. the Bills] but to us, day-in and day-out, he’s made progressive strides. I think that will continue to happen.”
“I feel like I’m improving,” Williams said. “But I feel improvement is necessary. I feel like I have a lot more to do.”
Timmons wears the transmitter in his helmet to listen to the coaches call the defense. He then calls it out for his teammates, but Williams then sets the front alignment. Foote used to handle both jobs.
“He’s more verbal, he’s setting the defense, he’s making a lot of the calls, helping Lawrence out big-time,’’ Foote said,
The question next year will become, who gets that buck linebacker job — Foote, or can Williams convince them to go younger?
“Hopefully, I can hold him off, come back next year, and he’ll be my backup,” said Foote. “But I’m just excited what he’s doing. As a linebacker, you root for the young guys, you want them to play well. He’s doing a good job for us.”
Gay turns into starter
The return of William Gay to the Steelers in March was not greeted warmly by many fans. Fairly or not, Gay had become a scapegoat at cornerback even when he started for the No. 1 pass defense and overall defense in 2011, earned a Super Bowl ring by playing in their nickel defense and as part-time starter in 2008, and was wildly popular with his teammates.
Gay signed a two-year contract as an unrestricted free agent with the Arizona Cardinals last year after the Steelers made no move to re-sign him.
The Cardinals cut him after one season, and that’s when defensive backs Ryan Clark and Ike Taylor went to work on coach Mike Tomlin.
“I texted coach Tomlin right away, are we trying to get Will?” Clark said. “Ike did the same thing. We all felt the same way. We wanted him to be here. We wanted him to be part of our defensive backfield, of our defense.”
The Steelers signed him to play in their nickel and dime defense. They had allowed starting cornerback Keenan Lewis to leave as a free agent because they felt good about his replacement, Cortez Allen.
Allen started the opener, missed two games with an injury and returned to start two more. Since then, Gay has replaced him as the starting left cornerback, and he played one of his better games Sunday.
Gay led the Steelers with nine solo tackles, 11 total — two for losses — against Buffalo. He also knocked down at least one pass.
“I thought Will always played well,” Clark said. “He’s not the flash some people want outside on the corner, not the speed, not the boisterous personality but an extremely good football player.”
Gay signed a three-year contract with the Steelers in March.
It’s a Georgia Tech thing
A Georgia Tech veteran player showed Jonathan Dwyer around on his recruiting visit to that school years ago.
“He showed me how everything works on campus, the different facilities, things like that,” Dwyer recalled. “I got to know him. It was a good experience. Calvin was the host of my visit.”
The two will meet again Sunday when Calvin Johnson arrives with the Detroit Lions at Heinz Field. Johnson wore No. 21 at Georgia Tech. When he left, coach Chan Gailey gave that number to Dwyer.
“Coach Gailey thought I could handle it in a responsible way and live up to the hype of the number and all that stuff,” Dwyer said of the legendary Johnson.
Lately, Dwyer is living up more to the promise that Tomlin had for him. The coach praised Dwyer Tuesday for his work as a backup running back and on special teams and said he deserved more carries.
“I heard about it,” said Dwyer, who was cut before the first game and re-signed before the second. “It’s encouraging. I’m just trying to do my job. It’s about what I do with those opportunities more than anything. You can get as many as you want, but, if you’re not doing anything with them, it’s worthless.”
Offensive guard Ramon Foster (ankle), defensive end Brett Keisel (foot) and outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley (calf) missed practice for a second consecutive day. Center Fernando Velasco returned, and offensive linemen Kelvin Beachum, David DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert all went through a full practice after being limited Wednesday.