LATROBE, Pa. -- A seemingly forgotten linebacker has hit harder than some of the storms that swept through the area during the Pittsburgh Steelers' first week of training camp.
Vince Williams jolted Le'Veon Bell several times during a back-on-'backers drill last Friday night, leading to the first fight of camp. The next day Williams walloped running back Miguel Maysonet and Tauren Poole in separate drills, putting him among the players who have stood out since the pads have gone on and started popping.
"Vince brings a great deal of emotion and intensity to his work. He has that distinguishing characteristic," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "He had it at Florida State and it continues. It's a good thing to build his game around."
Williams started 11 games last season following the loss of Larry Foote, and the sixth-round draft pick made significant progress during his rookie campaign. But he opened offseason practices behind rookie first-round pick Ryan Shazier on the depth chart at weakside inside linebacker, and Shazier has only tightened his grip on Williams' former job.
Williams lacks Shazier's speed and athleticism, two attributes that are vital with offenses increasingly spreading out defenses, but man can he deliver a shot. The Steelers will count on Williams doing that in a reserve role at linebacker as well as on special teams.
THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
1. The Steelers have an abundance of talent at inside linebacker a year after they had to start a player who had previously worked as an insurance adjuster for two games at the position. Williams gives them solid depth inside and Sean Spence looks like he will contribute two years after suffering a career-threatening knee injury. The Steelers are so deep at inside linebacker that Terence Garvin, who played 15 games as a rookie last season, will have to battle to make the team. One of the final roster spots could come down to Garvin and rookie sixth-round pick Jordan Zumwalt.
2. Ben Roethlisberger has looked sharp and focused despite talk swirling around him about his contract situation and former teammate Emmanuel Sanders' claim that Peyton Manning is a far better leader than Roethlisberger. Sanders, who is now with the Denver Broncos, might reassess his evaluation if he watched Roethlisberger for a couple of days during training camp. The 11th-year quarterback has been coaching the Steelers' wide receiver as much as he has been throwing to them, barking at them if they run a wrong or sloppy route or drop a ball, but also praising them when they make a good play. He has also stayed after practice to throw to his receivers.
3. The offensive line has a chance to be really good if it can stay relatively healthy. The Steelers already appear to be set with their starting five, and that group can use camp and the preseason games to work together on the new technique and schemes the line is learning from new position coach Mike Munchak. The line, which returns four starters from 2013 as well as Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey from a knee injury, has taken to the coaching of Munchak. It has also taken personally that the Steelers averaged just 86.4 rushing yards per game last season. One of the offensive line's goals this season is for the Steelers to rank among the NFL's top 10 teams in rushing.
THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM
1. Running back LeGarrette Blount's on-field behavior has been a little unsettling, and you have to wonder if the raw emotion that he couldn't check when he dived onto Vince Williams during the first fight of camp will resurface if he doesn't get the ball enough during the regular season. Bell is entrenched as the starter and he is clearly the better all-around back then Blount. The Steelers also want to get speedy rookie Dri Archer involved in the running game. How many carries that leaves for Blount remains to be seen. If he becomes unhappy with his role in the offense that could become an issue.
2. Groin injuries haven't become an epidemic but they have been an issue at camp and cost several players valuable practice time. New starting free safety Mike Mitchell, who arrived at camp with a groin injury, has yet to practice and he needs to develop a good on-field rapport with strong safety Troy Polamalu. The two did not practice together much during the offseason since Polamalu skipped the voluntary organized team activities (OTAs) and it has to be at least a small concern to the Steelers that they have yet to work together in camp. Jordan Zumwalt also missed significant practice time with a groin injury stunting his development. Zumwalt has a real chance to make the 53-man roster, but after missing OTAs because UCLA's school year hadn't ended, the sixth-round pick needs to get as many repetitions as he can during camp.
3. Roethlisberger seems to be targeting Antonio Brown a lot during 11-on-11 drills, which is understandable considering the latter caught 110 passes for 1,499 yards last season. But Brown is going to need some help this season to keep defenses from throwing all kind of coverages his way. The reality is that the young wideouts who have looked so promising in camp have yet to prove themselves at this level. The Steelers will probably feel a lot more at ease about their wide receivers if Markus Wheaton and Justin Brown, among others, flash in preseason games instead of just practice.
Rookie outside linebacker Howard Jones has helped himself through the early part of camp. Jones, who signed with the Steelers as an undrafted free agent, has stood out during back-on-'backers drills, and last Friday night he twice beat tight end Heath Miller. "He has a chance to be a player," a veteran Steelers player said of Jones.
One of the young running backs is going to emerge and make the 53-man roster and my guess is it is either Tauren Poole or Miguel Maysonet. Both have had their moments running the ball, though special teams may be the biggest consideration as far as who the Steelers keep as a fourth running back.
Wide receiver Martavis Bryant is making the team. The question is will the Steelers essentially redshirt him during his rookie season by deactivating him for games. The answer at this time last week would have probably been yes. But Bryant has come on after a slow start to camp and the Steelers could badly use a 6-4 wide receiver inside the 20-yard line. Bryant dominated a red zone drill late last week.
The Steelers are through the grind of camp. They are off today following six consecutive days of practice, and they will only practice two more times this week before holding a walk through for their first preseason game. After playing the New York Giants on Saturday night, the Steelers will practice four more times at St. Vincent College before breaking camp.