Yep, it's another Bengals/Steelers matchup appearing in this series. So far, we've already looked at No. 6: Carlos Dunlap vs Marcus Gilbert as well as No 3: Adam Jones vs Antonio Brown as two of the best individual player vs player matchups the Bengals will encounter in 2016. The rivalry between the Bengals and Steelers at this point is so heated and interesting that it's tough to not focus on these matchups so closely.
With one matchup yet to be announced, we might not even be done talking about Bengals/Steelers matchups after this. But, for now, let's focus on the matchup between the Bengals' promising, young free safety and the Steelers' aging, elite quarterback.
Shawn Williams' and Ben Roethlisberger's teams have met a total of seven times since Williams entered the league in 2013. However, Williams has only played in four of those seven games and only had an opportunity to contribute in the defensive backfield in the three most recent ones.
The biggest highlight of 2015 between the two teams may have been Williams' diving interception on Roethlisberger during the Bengals' Week 8, 16-10 victory over the Steelers in Pittsburgh.
The Bengals were down by a score of 10-6 at the time, but Williams' interception put the Bengals in prime field position to put together a touchdown pass from Andy Dalton to A.J. Green, giving the Bengals their first lead of the game with 5:34 left to play.
Williams was drafted in the third round of the 2013 NFL Draft. At the time, it looked as though he was going to be prepped to take over at the Bengals' vacant strong safety position opposite the 29-year-old Reggie Nelson. Due to the emergence of 2012 fifth round pick George Iloka at the position, that didn't end up happening. But, Williams has been a strong special teams contributor over the last couple of years while waiting for his opportunity to show his talent in the defensive backfield.
He finally got his opportunity to log some significant playing hours at free safety in 2015 due to some durability issues with Iloka who was injured a few times early in the season. In the process, according to Pro Football Focus, Williams logged 535 snaps over the course of the season and finished as the 43rd best safety in the NFL with a grade of 73.7. Heading into 2016, you can see why the Bengals feel confident enough in the safety position that they let Nelson walk and signed Williams to an extension.
The Bengals and Steelers will play their annual two games against each other in 2016. As it stands, it looks like Williams will be the starter at free safety, ready to show that he can continue his success against Roethlisberger and hopefully be the new thorn in Roethlisberger's side, which Nelson certainly was throughout his Bengals career.
For plenty of quarterbacks, being 34-years-old and entering their 13th season in the NFL would come with signs of slowing down and playing with a bit more reserved approach. That's not the case for Roethlisberger, who put up 3,938 yards, 21 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions in just 11 games last season.
In addition to his 2015 stats, he had a career year in 2014 throwing for 4,952 yards, 32 touchdowns, and nine interceptions.
To an extent, it does appear that age is starting to catch up to Roethlisberger as he missed multiple games due to injury in 2015 for the first time since 2012. But, his game hasn't changed a bit. Despite the aging process and a career of treating his body like a running back would, he still utilizes his scrambling ability and sheer toughness to extend plays on a regular basis and give his team every opportunity to find success.
He'll probably be continuing that playing style in 2016, making Williams' job all the more difficult. Regardless, it should be one of the most interesting matchups and best tests for a young Bengals player this season.
Who has the advantage?
Although it pains me to say this, there can't be any doubt that Roethlisberger has the obvious advantage right now. He is an established quarterback playing at an elite level, whereas Williams is just a former backup safety who had a few exciting games last season.
This matchup really gets exciting when you explore Williams' potential and whether or not he can live up to how he has played against Roethlisberger in the past. Like the No. 4 matchup between Cedric Ogbuehi and J.J. Watt, this particular matchup is so interesting purely on the basis of seeing how well the new starter will play against such a high profile veteran, but in this case it also involves one of the NFL's fiercest rivalries.
There seems to be no reason to think that Williams simply can't handle playing against Roethlisberger. The interesting part is seeing what actually happens when the two players meet up on the field. At that point, all of the speculation goes out the window and all that matters are the results.