Rookie Buck LB Earning Respect

Dick LeBeau's never had a rookie call his defensive signals for the Steelers until Vince Williams came along.

PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers practiced against a Minnesota Vikings-like zone-blocking scheme all summer, but are they ready for Adrian Peterson?

"I don't think so," free safety Ryan Clark said with a chuckle. "When you play Adrian, it's like 'Are you ready for LeBron?' It's just that simple. He's built differently than we are."

William Gay would tell you that. So, too, might James Farrior and Larry Foote, but they're gone.

More to the point: Is Vince Williams ready for Peterson, the NFL's reigning MVP?

"Yeah, I guess," said the rookie who's filling in for the injured Foote at the Steelers' critical buck inside linebacker position.

At the buck, Williams takes the call from the sidelines, relays it in the huddle, and sets the defense at the line. And it's a little daunting doing this with Clark, Troy Polamalu, Brett Keisel and Ike Taylor looking back at him.

"Yeah," said an incredulous Williams. "And they're listening to you."

He's getting help from Lawrence Timmons, but Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday that, "We want to minimize the responsibility we put on Lawrence because we need him to play great football."

So, the brainwork has been entrusted to Kion Wilson and apparently Williams in particular. He's the sixth-round pick out of Florida State who's been taking most of the first-team reps in practice this week.

"Vince is doing a nice job not only in his play but in communication and connecting in a timely and appropriate way," Tomlin said. "I think he's earning the confidence of the veteran defenders from that standpoint. ... He appears to be a natural."

Williams, we've been told since spring practices began, "plays from the neck up." But also, at 6-1, 250, he's making tackles and bringing back to mind -- at least from the standpoint of body-type -- Levon Kirkland, the prototypical Steelers buck linebacker who wore number 99 and came into the league with a similarly squat build.

"Yeah, Levon Kirkland," Williams said. "I've heard people bring him up. Nobody said I play like him, but they say they like when I come downhill. That's a big part of my game and I'm a very physical player, but I feel all of our players are very physical players. So I think I fit in more than I stand out."

He's also wearing No. 98. It was his choice when the Steelers -- in an attempt to preserve for a year the No. 98 worn by Casey Hampton the last 12 seasons -- initially gave Williams No. 57.

"I wanted to have a 90 number," Williams said. "The linebackers with the Steelers always have those numbers. I really didn't want number 57."

Steelers fans know that when the last No. 98 hunkered down at the goal line, scoring touchdowns became difficult. Williams had a chance to continue that tradition last Sunday night against the Chicago Bears, but -- even though he momentarily jarred the ball loose -- Williams couldn't finish the fourth-down tackle of Michael Bush, who re-clasped the ball and scored from the 1-yard line to put the Bears ahead 17-0.

"I kind of came in a little too high," Williams said. "Lawrence hit him and I scraped on top. I tried to go for the big hit, but I should've just squared up and made the tackle. I was very disappointed. I've got to make plays like that. It could've turned the game around."

The Bears needed all four plays from the 1-yard line to score, after Jason Worilds stopped Bush on first down, Timmons broke up a pass on second down, and Bush was stopped by Williams and Cameron Heyward on third down.

"That was my first goal-line stand since I've been here," Williams said. "The crowd was in it and I've never heard anything like it, and I come from a big program, Florida State. But it's on a completely different level in the pros -- the sound, the atmosphere, everything is a lot different. The stakes are higher, big time."

Williams made 7 tackles in his 32 defensive snaps against the Bears. Wilson, who's clearly becoming a bigger asset on special teams, made 2 tackles in 11 defensive snaps.

So, apparently, the calls at the buck are going to be made in London by the rookie, something that's occurring under LeBeau for the first time in his 12 seasons as the Steelers' defensive coordinator.

"I definitely think I'll be playing faster a year from now," Williams said. "Right now, these are my first couple of games against this type of talent. This is different. It's a completely different level, even from the preseason. In the preseason I was feeling my way around but the game was slower. Now you're out there with the traditional starters. They've all been together for a bit. They're jelling and now you have to come in and find a way. It's going to come together."

Mr. Peterson awaits.

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