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Labriola on signing Vince, Shazier, cutting WRs

Ready or not, here it comes:

  • It wasn't a high profile move, but it was a smart one. The signing of Vince Williams to a contract binding him to the team through the 2018 season was an example of how the Steelers like to operate, in that it locked up an up-and-coming player for the next three seasons.
  • Williams came to the Steelers as their second of two sixth-round picks during the 2013 draft, and he ended up starting 11 games that season when the team finally turned to him as the replacement for the injured veteran Larry Foote, who had torn a biceps in the opener.
  • Williams has played in 47 games so far and started 13 of them, and in another era of the NFL – an era when running the football was something every offense attempted to establish in every game – he might have been a superstar. As it is, he has become a reliable component of the depth at inside linebacker, and he also plays with a tempo and demeanor coaches are seeking from that position. As Mike Tomlin said Wednesday, Williams has great football intellect, he plays with an edge, he has a great deal of passion, and he loves to play.
  • Among the most common responses to the Williams signing have been predictions of what it could mean to Ryan Shazier, whose current contract is set to expire next March. But neither one of those guys is as important to the Steelers' future at this position than Ryan Shazier. That's not a knock on anyone, but rather an acknowledgment of how special Shazier could be.
  • The memories of the Steelers' great 3-4 defensive units of the recent past always include dynamic pass rushing from the outside linebackers, and ball-hawking big plays from the safety position. In reality, that was more a function of the individuals manning those spots being dynamic players than it was those spots being featured by the scheme, and the Steelers used their No. 1 pick in 2014 on an inside linebacker with dynamic talent.
  • Dynamic talent, such as Shazier exhibited in that Wild Card Round Game against the Bengals in Cincinnati last season. Thirteen tackles, two passes defensed, two forced fumbles – one of which saved the game – and one fumble recovery. Shazier was a difference-maker in the biggest game of the season to that point, and that's precisely what the Steelers had in mind back in April 2014.
  • Maybe the move to re-sign Williams was made with the idea of giving the team some flexibility at the position, what with Timmons potentially becoming an unrestricted free agent next March and staring at his 31st birthday next May. But this also is the kind of signing that's typically popular in the locker room, because his teammates see the diligence and purpose he brings to the job every day. Vince Williams loves his job, and it shows.
  • In the here-and-now, inside linebacker is shaping up to be one of the toughest cuts Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin will have to make. There are Timmons, Shazier, and Williams. Then it's Steven Johnson, L.J. Fort, and Tyler Matakevich competing for one spot, or maybe two provided that guy becomes virtually indispensable to special teams coordinator Danny Smith.
  • Matakevich has been an interesting story throughout this process, but understand that Johnson and Fort are experienced and in possession of some of the skills NFL teams find valuable over the course of a 17-week season. To some degree, both Johnson and Forte are been-there-done-that guys.

Photos as the Pittsburgh Steelers traveled to New Orleans, LA to take on the Saints in a preseason matchup.

  • Other areas that sure look to be tough cuts are wide receiver and offensive line. At wide receiver, figure on five, and maybe six on the initial 53-man roster. As for offensive linemen, it would seem as though nine is the intelligent guess.
  • Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Sammie Coates, Darrius Heyward-Bey, and Eli Rogers are the top five wide receivers right now. If there is a sixth, it stands to reason it would either be someone who is integral to special teams as a returner or in coverage, or an individual with a characteristic that makes him unique to the rest of the group.
  • Two guys currently on the roster who could fit those categories are Demarcus Ayers as a returner, and Landry Jones for being 6-foot-2.
  • Missing from the list of wide receivers, of course, is Martavis Bryant. And the offense also will be without Le'Veon Bell for the first three regular season games.
  • One way around those issues might be to depend even more on their offensive line.
  • This five-man group projects to be the Steelers' best offensive line in 10 years, back to the days of Alan Faneca and Jeff Hartings and Marvel Smith. Depending on the offensive line doesn't mean going back to a ground-and-pound, but a solid offensive line can make everything easier.
  • And this one has the look of a difference-making group.
  • During a recent appearance on WEEI, Patriots Coach Bill Belichick contended that this weekend of the preseason isn't as close to what we'll see in the regular season as some of the hype might lead you to believe.
  • "In terms of playing time it might be a little different," said Belichick, "but in terms of game-planning and strategy, what we see in the regular season compared to what we see the in third preseason game I don't even think you're in the same universe. We're still running our basic plays, and we'd expect our opponents would run their basic plays. You get to the opener and start to get to game-planning and scheme, I mean you're in a totally different ballpark, in my opinion. I don't see any comparison at all. It's too far away, I don't see how you could compare them, from that standpoint."
  • So, enjoy tonight's game between the Steelers and Saints while remembering that it's still largely an exercise staged to evaluate individuals who may or may not be around for the start of the regular season. It's still the preseason.
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