As long as you weren’t coaching for or playing for the team on the other sideline, Quinnen Williams was an absolute joy to watch during his redshirt sophomore season at Alabama.
As a first-year starter in Nick Saban’s defense, Williams racked up 19.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks for the Crimson Tide. In doing so, Pro Football Focus gave Williams the highest grade in their history for an interior defensive lineman with a season score of 96.
“Can’t-miss” prospects really don’t exist when it comes to the NFL Draft. Over the years we’ve seen even the players we have the most confidence in fail to live up to expectations for a variety of reasons. But there are certain guys that get about as close as you can to “can’t miss” and it seems like Williams was one of them no matter who you talked to.
This, and other factors, were the catalyst for the New York Jets selecting Williams No. 3 overall in the 2019 NFL Draft.
One year later and you might be wondering to yourself, “huh, you know, come to think of it, I didn’t hear much about Williams during the season.” There’s a reason why, and that reason is, stats-wise, there wasn’t much to talk about.
Williams finished the 2019 season with just 2.5 sacks with four tackles for loss and just 19 quarterback pressures. Williams only played in 13 games with nine starts, but it’s not like he didn’t have his chances. Williams played 512 defensive snaps as a rookie, which was almost 50 percent of the team’s defensive snaps and second-most on the defensive line behind only defensive end Kyle Phillips (550). Williams suffered an ankle injury in Week 1 of the season that forced him to sit out the next three games, but then was able to play out the rest of the season without a hitch.
But I’m here to tell you that, despite a lack of statistical production, Williams’ rookie season was a solid start to what should be a great career. Let’s look at the context of Williams’ environment before getting to some tape to really understand what happened in 2019.
Part of what goes into production is what’s asked of you. Your coaches, your scheme, and your gameplan often have a say in what you are able—maybe better said: allowed—to do.
I believe offensive players have a bit more freedom from the game plan. If you’re a receiver, you have the chance to gain separation in your own ways, at times. The same kind of leeway can, at times, exist for running backs finding open space. But defense is different; defense is more strict. On defense, you all truly have to work together cohesively as a unit to succeed. That means being on the same page and doing your job so the guy next to you can do his. That means less improvising. Who determines your job? The coach.
The Jets defensive coordinator is long-time NFL DC Gregg Williams. Williams has had quite the lengthy pro career as a coach, one that has taken him to football’s mountain top. Here’s Williams’ coaching timeline:
- Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans: 1997-2000
- Buffalo Bills (HC): 2001-2003
- Washington Redskins: 2004-2007
- Jacksonville Jaguars: 2008
- New Orleans Saints (Super Bowl): 2009-2011
- St. Louis Rams: 2012
- Tennessee Titans: 2013
- St. Louis/L.A. Rams: 2014-2016
- Cleveland Browns: 2017-2018
- New York Jets: 2019
Williams has been around the block. He’s taken notes, successes, and failures from each stop and has modified how he coaches along the way. When it comes to what kind of defense he’s running in New York, this is what he had to say a year ago.
“Wherever we have been as a staff, since I’ve been in charge of staffs and schemes, the multiplicity of what we do, not many people do as much as we do,” Williams said in his introductory press conference in New York last offseason. “And that’s not to over complicate anything. It’s concept teaching, concept learning, cognitive learning. I know people talk about 4-3 and 3-4. Everywhere I have been we’ve done them both. It’s all about how to get these guys to be the best they can be.”
So what goes into that multiplicity? How multiple are we talking here? Are we talking a couple different forms of base defense with a handful of sub-packages in each category of situational football sprinkled in to keep up with the evolution of the game?
Yeah… not exactly.
“I have 42 words that add up to the 11 that trot out to the field,” Williams said. “You guys that have studied me before, we’ll play 4-3 and 3-4 in the same game. 3-3, 3-2, 4-1, 4-2, bear, big on five down, big on six down, big on more linebackers, little on more DB’s. I have 42 packages of defense. Now everywhere I go, I don’t do them all. What it is, coaches sit in a room and we waste so much time wondering what the word is. I have the words already. I’ve been doing it for so long. So boom, this 11 guys, boom this 11 guys trot out there. Then, what you all will see is, how much we play those types of schemes or packages is based on the AFC North. It’s based on what the offenses are pulling out there and we have to play defense on. I’m also not afraid to make sure all of the other people are going to have to work on things that I’m never going to call. They’ve got to practice all week long on 4-3, 3-4, 2-2, all of that kind of stuff, and I’m not even going to do it next week. So that’s ok, too.”
Forty-two word combinations in a defensive call out between each snap make for numerous combinations of how a Gregg Williams defense can defend, not just week-to-week, but play-to-play. Gregg Williams said himself he doesn’t like to over complicate things, but with that much information to understand, that’s a lot for a first-year player to take in. Perhaps that had something to do with Quinnen Williams’ lack of production.
In the NFL, the game moves fast. That’s just the way Gregg Williams likes his defense to play. But when you’re second-guessing at all, even just a little bit, you’re beat. Players in the NFL are too good and too fast, especially if they know exactly what to do and can do it at full speed the entire time. Perhaps an overload of information caused a slight hesitancy in Quinnen Williams in his first season. There’s a chance that could be a reason for a lack of production, something not uncommon for rookies, no matter the position.
But there are other factors that could be at play that deal with coaching here, too. When asked about the kind of coaching style and the mentors Gregg Williams has had over the years, he has a great list of names he’s pulled ideas from.
“I took George Allen, I took Buddy Ryan, I took Dick LeBeau. I took Bud Carson. I put them all together and now it’s kind of a Gregg Williams way that we do things,” Williams said. “But there’s more Buddy Ryan in everything I do defensively, schematically, than anything.”
That Buddy Ryan part is very interesting, especially for what we’re talking about here with Quinnen Williams’ situation.
The late Buddy Ryan, who was the father of NFL coaches Rex and Rob Ryan, was most famous for the creation of the 46 defense, a defense that was a catalyst for the 1985 Chicago Bears’ Super Bowl victory. In that season, the Bears led the league in turnovers forced and surrendered the fewest yards, points, and first downs. It was true defensive dominance in a way we had never seen before.
So what went into the 46 formation?
Unlike the 4-3 and 3-4 formations, the number 46 doesn’t tell the story of how many defensive linemen have their hands in the dirt. Instead, that number was chosen to represent its uniqueness. The 46 defense is a derivative from a 4-3 formation with four down lineman and three linebackers, but it also features a strong safety lined up at the linebacker level to create an eight-man box.
The creation of this defense was built around strong safety Doug Plank, who wore number 46 for the Chicago Bears during the early years of Ryan’s tenure there, and was the key component to the new formation—though Plank didn’t even get to enjoy the true fruits of his labor via the 1985 Super Bowl, as he was only with the Bears until 1982.
The reason for the experimentation of alignment? Get to the passer.
“To stop a passing game, you can't stop it unless you put pressure on it,” Ryan said to NFL films in 1986. “Now some people are good enough to put it on with a three-man rush; well, we're not. In fact, I don't know whether we're good enough to put it on with a four-man rush. If we have to send eight, we'll send eight, but we're not going to let you sit back there and pick us apart.”
Ryan also famously said, “a quarterback has never completed a pass when he was flat on his back.” He also went on to say that “quarterbacks are over-paid, over-rated, pompous bastards and must be punished”, which is absolutely worth noting if nothing else but to give you the context of how amazing it would be to play for Ryan.
Ryan wanted pressure. He wanted offensive lines to feel helpless and he wanted more rushers than there were blockers. Ryan believed that a good pass rush was the most important factor toward achieving good coverage. That’s why Ryan had no problem sacrificing one of the defensive backs to play as more of a surrogate linebacker (the Plank role).
Now, getting to the point of all this, Ryan achieved those free attacks to the quarterback by clogging the middle. Along the defensive front, Ryan aligned a nose tackle and two defensive tackles right over the center and boh guards to clog up running lanes and also prohibit interior lineman from pulling. It’s not to say that the interior defensive linemen never made it to the quarterback, they certainly did, but their main job was to be big in the middle. You can see shades of that interior defensive line philosophy throughout Gregg Williams’ NFL career.
In the 24 seasons Williams has been either a head coach or a defensive coordinator, a defensive tackle has only led his team in sacks six times. Notably, one of them was with Jurrell Casey during his 2013 season with the Tennessee Titans. The two most recent examples, 2015 and 2016, were with this guy you may know named Aaron Donald. Casey and Donald were also the only two defensive tackles who not only led the team while playing interior defensive tackle but also did so with double-digit sacks.
Now, those players themselves provide as much context as to why they were successful as the scheme does. For example, during his early seasons with the Titans, Williams built his defense around defensive end Javon Kearse, which is a giant “duh.” I would also argue that, though it hasn’t happened much, Casey and Donald were two of the most talented pass-rushing interior defensive linemen Gregg Williams has had the chance to coach. When that was the case, he built his defense around them succeeding; and they did.
I hope all of that helps paint a clearer picture of where Williams is coming from. His stats in 2019 did not appear to be very impactful, but Williams himself was. Though the Jets aren’t playing the 46 as a base defense or anything, much of what Williams was asked to do was “play his part.”
That part sometimes meant covering two gaps, taking on multiple blockers, and being the decoy on stunts (which happened a lot). All of those roles are important for a play function of a defense where Wiliams might not show up on the stat sheet, but the positive result, in part because of him, certainly did.
Williams didn’t get too many straight paths to the quarterback last season. The two where he was virtually unblocked he turned into sacks.
Williams was best at Alabama when they let him one-gap and get up field. This Jets defense is not built to allow him to do those things, at least not right now. As stated before, Williams was often asked to play his part in the overall defense instead. That often came in the form of stunts, one of which is seen above.
But even there we got a glimpse of Williams’ talent, even if it didn’t end up being recorded beyond a quarterback hit. Williams was able to turn the corner and burst right into the chest of quarterback Daniel Jones, far faster than Jones anticipated. That’s the kind of stuff that, if you put Williams in a different position with a different goal for that play, you can envision him having pass-rush success.
Brian Baldinger of NFL Network put this clip up of Williams in the preseason against the Atlanta Falcons and I wanted to use it because it showed off Williams’ pass rush ability when given the chance. In the clip, Williams just straight overpowered his man and did so with such force and quickness that the help block couldn’t even get over there before Williams penetrated the pocket. Though he could stay on his feet to complete the sack, that shows the fact that Williams’ strength is not lost at the NFL level.
Let’s take that further and see how Williams fared against some of the best competition he faced in 2019.
In the clip above, Williams was lined up as a 3-tech defensive tackle straight over the outside shoulder of left guard Zack Martin. Now, this is six-time Pro Bowler and four-time first-team All-Pro right guard Nick Martin. And on this 3rd-and-1, Williams manhandled him to help with the stop. That’s impressive.
Here’s another example against another great offensive lineman.
In this play, Williams was lined up as a 4i in front of the inside shoulder of the right tackle Lane Johnson. Again, this is three-time Pro Bowler and first-team All-Pro right tackle Lane Johnson. Against him, Williams got into Johnson’s chest with great leverage and strength, was able to throw Johnson aside, and made the tackle right at the line of scrimmage.
Most of Williams’ best plays were against the run in 2019. People are here to see pass-rush success and pass-rush stats, but when you judge Williams’ rookie year, you have to take into context that most of his best plays were against the run because that’s what he was asked to do.
I’m not saying Williams’ first year was exactly what people wanted it to be. I am sure there were some, maybe even those coaching him, who hoped to see more from a pass-rush standpoint. But I am saying that the traits we loved about Williams at Alabama still showed up with regularity in his first season with the Jets, even if it came in the form of run defense.
If Gregg Williams lets Quinnen Williams one-gap more in year two, I think you’ll see those stats you were searching for.