It doesn’t usually apply to defensive players, who like to deliver crunching hits and cause turnovers but who can also be responsible for giving up big plays.
So is it a good thing that all seems to be quiet around starting cornerback Tramon Williams the past couple of weeks? It’s just fine, and it’s another sign that Williams is continuing to evolve from a third corner and part-time starter into a true, reliable starting cornerback in the NFL.
“Up until this point, he’s playing exactly the way I thought he could,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr. said. “He’s playing the best of anybody back there. He’s doing what we’re asking him to do.”
Covering receivers is of course Williams’ primary duty, and he’s held up well in that department by, according to Whitt, giving up just one completion so far, a 3-yarder that was stopped short of the first-down marker.
But also, knowing he would be starting from Week 1 in place of the injured Al Harris this year, Williams has focused on becoming more of a complete cornerback, and that means providing stouter run support on the edges.
He did his best job of that to date last Monday in Chicago, when he posted seven solo tackles, leading the team and tying a career high. He also added his second career sack in that game, but more important than that one highlight was providing a steady presence in all phases on defense.
“Being physical, that was our main goal,” Whitt said. “He covered well last year, but we wanted to make sure he improved his tackling, which was poor last year. He’s a physical tackler this year.
“It’s more of a mindset. Tackling is just want-to, and he wants to get in there. He wants to be a complete corner. He doesn’t want to be known as a cover guy or a nickel corner, which everybody says he is. He is a starting corner in the NFL. He would start on probably 28 of the 32 teams in the NFL. Probably all of them, because I don’t know if there are two corners on a team that are better than him.”
Williams has done nothing but get better since being signed to the Packers’ practice squad for the final month of the 2006 season as a non-drafted rookie out of Louisiana Tech. He battled his way onto the roster as a longshot in 2007 and by the end of that season had assumed the nickel corner job.
Then in 2008, he was suddenly thrust into a starting role when Harris missed four games with a lacerated spleen. He started three more games later in the season when Charles Woodson shifted to safety to try to plug other holes on a struggling defense. Williams recorded five interceptions that year, but he also was targeted by opposing quarterbacks, understandably so, with a veteran like Woodson or Harris always at the other corner.
With Green Bay’s defense as a whole falling below expectations in ’08, it was very much an up-and-down year for Williams. But all the exposure he received proved valuable when Harris went down with a season-ending knee injury in Week 11 last year, and Williams stepped in again as the starter for the remainder of the season, finishing ’09 with four interceptions.
“You’re always going to have an adjustment period (the first time as a starter),” Williams said. “First of all, you’re going to be playing more plays, and you have to kind of get that under your belt. Mentally, with film study, you have to put more into that also. You’re not just playing mostly third downs anymore, you have to prepare for everything now. There was a whole bunch that came with it, but I adjusted to it and I pretty much learned.”
All that learning set the stage for him to succeed as the opening-day starter this year for defensive coordinator Dom Capers and – so far anyway – he has yet to be an obvious target of opposing passers, an indication others around the league have noticed his improved game on film.
Fourteen games, including one playoff contest, as a No. 2 cornerback when technically not a starter on the depth chart will produce that kind of growth.
“I think it’s just being consistent,” Woodson said of the most noticeable progress Williams has made. “That comes with experience, and he’s gotten a ton of it the last couple years starting in place of Al, and coming in this year knowing he was going to start the season. That experience I think has carried him over the top.”
Rarely, if ever, leaving the field during the game has given Williams a different perspective on his role too. He has witnessed first-hand the need to have well-rounded skills against the run and the pass, and he’s able to process that much more information about the opponents the longer he’s out there.
“You get to see a lot of different things when you’re in the starting lineup,” Williams said. “As a nickel, you still get a lot of playing time. In this defense, in Dom’s defense, nickel plays about 60, 65 percent of the time, maybe more. So I felt I already had the experience.
“But you kind of get into that rhythm as a starter. When you’re able to get into a rhythm, it’s harder for people to pick on you. You can recognize when plays are coming. You can see a lot of stuff that you don’t see when you’re going in and out of the game.”
Whitt credits Williams’ diligence off the field, particularly in the film room, for helping him “see” so much. He was tested early in the opener at Philadelphia against speedy receiver DeSean Jackson and responded.
In the first quarter, he leaped high to get both hands on a sideline pass, but he lost the handle as he was hit coming back down. Then in the second quarter, he deflected a pass for Jackson that a diving Woodson nearly intercepted. He later batted down a quick slant, deftly timing his reach around Jackson to swat the ball cleanly and not draw a flag.
“He’s a professional,” Whitt said. “I can’t say enough what he does preparation-wise, in the classroom. We’re only on the field a little bit, but he prepares so he knows, he has formation recognition. He comes to work, and it’s been showing so far on Sunday. Because that’s what it’s all about – gameday. How can you get yourself mentally and physically ready for gameday, and he does that at a high level.
“Now, he has to do it every week, and he has to show it every week. The first three games, he’s shown it.”
Since that standout opening half against the Eagles, a span of 10 quarters now, he hasn’t chalked up any deflections on the stat sheet but hasn’t surrendered any substantial gains either. The results tell Williams he’s doing his job, however quietly, but he also knows he can’t get lulled to sleep or change his approach for any given matchup.
“We had a long week to prepare for Philly, and I’ve been trying to put the way we prepared for Philly into every week now,” said Williams, who also is serving as the Packers' No. 1 punt returner this season. “I think everything’s been good so far.
“But you always want that chance to get an interception as a corner,” he added, with a smile. “Whenever teams don’t really challenge you much, it becomes a boring game. You hate to say it. But you have to keep that focus for a period of time, because there’s still a chance you could get challenged at any time, on any play.”
That could come as soon as this Sunday, when Detroit’s 6-foot-5 receiver Calvin Johnson could be among Williams’ assignments. Johnson may be the most dynamic combination of size, speed and leaping ability at the receiver position in the NFC North, and he’s given the Packers plenty of trouble in the past, with six touchdown catches in five career games against Green Bay.
It’s not likely to remain this quiet for Williams much longer, but if it does, he’ll keep that trademark smile on his face for a job well done. If it doesn’t, he’s ready.
“He’s covered top receivers before, and Calvin has tremendous ability,” Whitt said. “It will be interesting to see what happens. I don’t have a crystal ball, so I can’t tell you what’s going to happen, but I know he’s prepared for whatever challenges Sunday has.”
Additional coverage – Oct. 1