Labriola On

Labriola on how the trade came together

Ready or not, here it comes:

• "If you're putting somebody on a moving train, having some intimate knowledge of their character or their football character or their day-to-day is important. Forget what you see on tape. Everybody has access to that, that's global information. But in an effort to feel comfortable, to know how they might fit into the group dynamic and what they might bring to your football team, it's good to have some intimate knowledge of who they are as men, how they go about their day-to-day business and so forth, and usually that comes from shared relationships or past research."

• A couple of weeks ago, before the arrival of the NFL trading deadline, that was what Coach Mike Tomlin said the Steelers needed to pull the trigger on a deal. Apparently, Avery Williamson checked enough boxes to make Tomlin comfortable adding a third to what quickly was about to become a two-man depth chart at inside linebacker.

• As is often the case, Tomlin's research was done at a college Pro Day. Often during a visit to a Pro Day, he will ask one of the draft eligible players he has come to visit a question along the lines of: "Which guy am I going to be coming back here to see next year?" And then that serves as a conversation starter.

• Sometimes the conversation unfolds in a typical way based on the initial question, but sometimes it takes a different turn. Sometimes Tomlin learns things about others from the conversation, and sometimes he learns things about the individual with whom he is conversing. Doesn't really matter, because Tomlin is interested in information-gathering. And he has come to believe these visits and these discussions yield good information.

• Such as the time spent at Kentucky's Pro Day in 2015, during which the primary purpose of his visit was to get a closer look at a defensive end named Bud Dupree. And so when one of Dupree's former college teammates, someone already in the NFL after having been a fifth-round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft by the Tennessee Titans, sidled up to him the conversation flowed naturally. And while the back-and-forth undoubtedly turned up some nuggets about the subject of that particular visit, the conversation also revealed things about the young man with whom Tomlin was chatting.

• "I met Avery at Bud Dupree's Pro Day after his rookie year in the NFL," explained Tomlin. "There was a lot of down time during the course of that day, and we kind of gravitated toward one another. His passion for football comes through in general conversation. He's a football lover, a football junkie. I followed him throughout the course of his NFL career because of that."

Take a look at photos of the Pittsburgh Steelers new linebacker Avery Williamson

• And what Tomlin learned by following Williamson's career was that during the 2015, 2016, and 2017 seasons, he started 47 games at inside linebacker for the Titans during which he played 2,465 snaps. The coordinator for those Tennessee defenses was Dick LeBeau, which was what prompted the following comment from Tomlin:

• "At the early stages of his career he played in Tennessee (for the Titans) in a system of defense that was very similar to ours, not only in terms of how it was constructed but also the language itself," said Tomlin.

• So after personally getting a feel for the kind of man Williamson is at that Kentucky Pro Day and then knowing that he played a lot of snaps in a defensive scheme very similar to the Steelers' even down to the terminology, Tomlin could feel somewhat comfortable both in the kind of individual he would be adding to the locker room as well as how long it might take him to get aboard the moving train.

• "The strength of the pack is the pack."

• The above is a relatively recent addition to the bevy of catchphrases Tomlin uses to deliver messages to his players, but it also serves as the perfect description of a group of inside linebackers that doesn't include Devin Bush.

• The knee-jerk assumption is that the Steelers wouldn't make a trade for someone such as Williamson if he wasn't going to be inserted immediately into the starting lineup. Williamson may end up in the starting lineup, but he's neither an automatic nor an untouchable.

• "He's a guy who fortifies depth in an area in which we've been challenged recently," said Tomlin about Williamson. "We know that we've lost Devin Bush and lost Devin Bush for (all of) 2020, but additionally to that in recent weeks Ulysees Gilbert has been less than available with a back (injury). So at the trade deadline we thought it was necessary, if we had an opportunity, to get a known commodity, one like Avery Williamson who we were somewhat familiar with and who was somewhat familiar with our schematics, and put him into the fold."

• Bringing him "into the fold" were words never spoken about Minkah Fitzpatrick, because he was a guy who was brought here not only to start but also to serve as a missing piece to a defense seriously lacking someone with his skills. Fitzpatrick arrived in town on an in-season Tuesday and was in the starting lineup the very next Sunday, and in that game he finished with five tackles, an interception, a forced fumble, and a hit on the quarterback while playing every defensive snap at free safety.

• Williamson is in a different category altogether. First of all, he won't be able to join the team physically until Saturday, and with the Steelers due to pay him $770,763 for the rest of the regular season he's neither a strain on the salary cap nor someone whose paycheck demands he be on the field as soon as possible.

• Also, the need to get him onto the field to plug a gaping hole isn't there as it was with Fitzpatrick. Vince Williams and Robert Spillane have started together at inside linebacker in the victories over the Titans and Ravens. Spillane played 114 snaps in those two games and turned in a highlights reel play in each – the collision with Derrick Henry inside the 5-yard line that kept him out of the end zone, and the pick-6 of a Lamar Jackson pass early in the first quarter to stake the Steelers to a 7-0 lead.

• But productive hasn't meant perfect, and Spillane is very much a work in progress. Steelers fans long have been quick to fall in love with an underdog, and they are smitten with Spillane much in the same way they were with Devlin Hodges in 2019. What became apparent with Hodges was that more playing time exposed his inexperience and the weaknesses in his game, not only to the Steelers coaching staff but also to the staffs of the teams on their schedule.

• That hadn't happened yet to Spillane to the degree it eventually happened with Hodges, but rather than wait for what the Steelers perceived to be the inevitable, they acted and utilized an avenue to which they wouldn't have had access once 4 p.m. EST on Nov. 3 passed.

• And while there never is any give-up in the way the Steelers approach a season, even one in which Ben Roethlisberger was lost to elbow surgery six quarters in, 2020 is different in that it has the potential to be special.

• The Steelers' reality at the time of the Williamson trade was that they were a 7-0 team with victories over the Browns, the Titans in Nashville, and the Ravens in Baltimore. Based on those victories over Cleveland and Baltimore, it was fair to characterize them as contenders to win the AFC North, and by virtue of being the last undefeated team in the NFL for a couple of weeks they also qualify as Super Bowl contenders.

• Roethlisberger has come back beautifully from elbow surgery, and the defense is the NFL's best in pressuring the passer and it left Baltimore tied-for-second in the NFL in interceptions. Their placekicker is back to being money and has been for the better part of two seasons now, and their return and coverage units have been an asset in every game this season.

• This isn't a complete team or a perfect roster, but there's no such thing anywhere else in the NFL either. The Steelers were thinnest at inside linebacker, already without Bush for the rest of this season and on the way to being without Ulysees Gilbert, whose balky back has been an issue in each of his two NFL seasons and not only has slowed his development almost to a stop but also has rendered him unreliable.

• When you play two inside linebackers at a time and there are only two on the roster, and all paths to winning the AFC North go through the Ravens and their run-heavy offense, looking for reinforcements made sense. And when a player such as Williamson, one who checked the boxes Tomlin needed checked, became available for the bargain basement price of a swap of third-day draft picks two years from now …

• "With as much ball as we have that lies ahead," said Tomlin, "it was a prudent thing to do, and we're excited about having him."

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