(UPDATED at 7:05 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 1)
Given the current configuration of the defense, specifically the inside linebacker position, it was an easy decision for them. And the reason why the Steelers saw it as an easy decision is simple to understand.
As defensive coordinator Keith Butler said early during a Friday afternoon Zoom call with the Pittsburgh media, "(Devin) and Vince will be playing inside linebacker for us this year."
Following the 2018 season, the Steelers knew they had to make significant upgrades to their defense, specifically for those times when the football was in the air. It began with the signing of unrestricted free agent cornerback Steven Nelson, but then a bigger move came in the first round of the NFL Draft.
The Steelers traded up 10 spots in the first round and picked Devin Bush, a player they believed could be the three-down linebacker they lost when Ryan Shazier sustained a spinal injury during a game in Cincinnati in December 2017. Once they got Bush, they threw him into the deep end of the pool, and it was sink or swim.
Bush didn't sink. He played in all 16 games in 2019 and started 15 of those. He logged 889 snaps – 82 percent of the snaps over the course of the entire season – and he finished with 109 tackles, a sack, two interceptions, four passes defensed, a forced fumble, four fumble recoveries, and he scored a touchdown on one of those fumble recoveries.
"Of course, you want Devin to make a good jump for us this year, and I think he will because things won't be new to him," said Butler. "He has done it before, and we're going to expect more out of him. We're going to want him to help make calls and get the communication down, and we think he's capable of doing that. We think he's going to really come alive for us this year.
"He played well for us last year as a rookie," continued Butler, "but once you've been there and seen the game a little bit, he knows the speed of the game, he knows what we're going to call for the most part. He's got an idea of what we're going to expect of him. We're hopeful he's going to have a good year for us."
That Bush was going to be entrenched in the starting lineup and that more was going to be expected of him during his second NFL season wasn't news. But when the Steelers released Mark Barron, a veteran hybrid linebacker signed as an unrestricted free agent a year ago who ended up playing 750 snaps alongside Bush in 2019, and then didn't sign or draft a replacement, the question was who would move into that spot alongside Bush.
As Butler said definitively early in the Zoom call, that will be Williams. The reason?
"Because he's a great communicator," said Butler about Williams. "As we went back and looked at our (2019) video and graded ourselves, if anything went wrong with our defense it was more on our communication, and really on our secondary communication. There's primary communication, which starts at the first part of the play, and as the play starts to play out a little bit there's secondary communication when sometimes you have to make adjustments. And Vince is real good at doing that for us and getting the calls to the guys and making sure they know that we're all on the same page. That's big for us, and that's what Vince Williams brings to the table."
A sixth-round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, Williams ended up starting 11 games as a rookie, and then he became a full-time starter in 2017. But in 2019, the Steelers went with Bush and Barron more and more, and Williams started eight games. While not a three-down inside linebacker in the same category as Bush or Barron in terms of coverage ability, Williams contributes as a three-down inside linebacker because he can rush the passer. He posted a career-high eight sacks in 2017, and over the previous three years he has posted 15 sacks.
"He's very physical," said Butler, "and we feel like if we get him one-on-one with a back, then he's going to win that matchup. We feel like he's a good rusher of the passer. We think that he can cover, maybe not as well as Devin, but he does a sufficient job of it for us. We'll see when we get to different personnel groups in terms of what offenses give us as to how we'll use our personnel."
Butler also addressed a number of other topics:
On whether Terrell Edmunds has been considered for the role of dime linebacker:
"We have kicked a lot of things around right now going into the season and coming out of last season, looking at our cut-ups and trying to decide what's going to make us better or who could make us better, where we might put them and help us to be better. There are several different options we feel like we have. We want to see them in pads and see them when they get out here and running around a little bit. Right now, we are not full speed in any way, shape or manner. We're trying to get them in shape and get them ready to go full speed, then gear up when we get in pads and see what they can do. We're going to try to move around a little bit and see what's best for us."
On expectations for Edmunds in 2020 as he enters his third NFL season:
"It's huge for him. He is coming along and has been coming along. There is a great expectation in terms of where you are drafted. We took him high. At the time, we felt like he can help us. I think he is going to get better. Having Minkah across from him is going to help him in terms of communication and the way they play and how they can complement each other. Terrell is going to be a big asset for us as he continues to get better, and I think he will continue to get better. Our secondary coaches have done a good job with him. As we roll along, the more and more he plays, the more comfortable he is going to get mentally. If guys start to get comfortable mentally, most of the time they're going to play faster. So let's hope that happens with him."
On what he sees for Cam Sutton and Mike Hilton:
"Cam [Sutton] is a very smart young man, and we're going to use him in the sub-packages, especially in passing situations. On third downs we are going to have him in the game quite a bit, and maybe in passing situations more so than running situations. We feel like he is better in those types of situations because he is athletic, he is very smart. Very few times are you going to see him out of place when he is in coverage. We are kind of excited about that and how he is going to play for us in passing situations. We know Mike Hilton and what he does. He's a tough little dude. He has been doing it for a while. He is part of our front package when we're playing nickel, and he moves around a little bit. We feel like he can blitz, I think he can be a threat as a blitzer. He does a good job of what we ask him to do."