In 2009, Green Bay Packers cornerback Tramon Williams(notes) earned the nickname "Admiral Armbar" by the good folks at Football Outsiders for his penalty-filled play. He racked up 124 penalty yards (second-highest in the NFL behind Seahawks cornerback Marcus Trufant(notes)) on six flags, and really gunked it up in a Week 13 game against the Baltimore Ravens -- three pass interference calls, and 106 penalty yards. It seems that the 2010 version of our good Admiral is a very different player. Cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt put it succinctly in a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel article about the guy who had become the Packers' best pass defender: "Show me a corner having a better year," Whitt said. "Name one. At the corner position, he's outplayed all of them."
According to that same article (written by the outstanding Bob McGinn), Williams had given up one play of 20 yards or more, no touchdown passes, and one penalty. Whitt said that decisions to put Williams on Brandon Marshall(notes) and Randy Moss(notes) are the result of asking Charles Woodson(notes) to blitz more because of the team's injury-depleted front seven, but "the only reason we're allowed to do that is Tramon can cover anybody's No. 1 (receiver)."
According to Football Outsiders' Bill Barnwell, Williams has the sixth-best Success Rate among all defensive backs in 2010 -- by far the best among all defenders in Super Bowl XLV. And in watching three mid-season Packers games - against the Dallas Cowboys, New York Jets, and Minnesota Vikings - the full palette of Williams' play was revealed.
The first thing that stood out to me about Williams' overall play was his exceptional closing discipline on short passes. Not so much closing speed -- it's easy enough to understand how that can be an overrated attribute when you watch fast corners overrun tackles -- but the ability to step into the route established by an offensive player who has just caught a short pass. This did show up in the Dallas game as well and didn't require All-22 film to see. When Jason Witten(notes) ran a flare out of a fullback position, or when Dez Bryant(notes) caught a bubble screen near the line of scrimmage, Williams would adjust immediately and make tackling his priority. Sounds obvious, but again, when you see enough cornerbacks, you know that it isn't. He's one of the best in the league at taking a juke move in space and refusing to allow additional yardage.
Williams' interception of a Mark Sanchez(notes) pass in the Pack's Week 8 win over the Jets was another example of his short-area skill. With 4:54 left on the first half, the Jets went three-wide, and Green Bay responded with a 3-3 nickel defense with a deep safety and some interesting blitz concepts. Linebackers Brandon Chillar(notes) and A.J. Hawk(notes) moved up to the line pre-snap, leaving Clay Matthews(notes) as the only man at his position in space.
Matthews crashed through right guard at the snap on a loop blitz that LaDainian Tomlinson(notes) picked up. Mark Sanchez then had enough time to hit Jerricho Cotchery(notes) on a quick route in which Cotchery took five steps and made a sharp dig move inside. Such routes are better in exploiting off-coverage than the man looks given by the Green Bay secondary, but Williams' technique still made the difference. He slanted inside with the route, moved into inside position when Cotchery's attempt to flick him away gave him an opening, got his hands on the ball, and wrestled it away from the receiver. This was a good example of how Williams now avoids the early shot (and subsequent penalty) by using timing, read skills, and better technique. The Jets challenged that Williams got the ball from Cotchery before both players hit the ground, but simultaneous possession is not reviewable (of course), and it looked to me as if the ball started to come loose just before that happened. The play was upheld in a rare good call from Jeff Triplette's crew.
Against the slightly more dynamic Vikings passing attack in Week 7, Williams appeared to be fooled a couple of times on route concepts involving Moss. But one play in particular was the result of a schematic opening, and it showed me just how much defensive coordinator Dom Capers trusts Williams at this point -- we're back to the trust Coach Whitt discussed in that article. With 12:38 left in the first half, Moss started outside right and moved near Percy Harvin's(notes) slot position pre-snap.
At the snap, Harvin ran a deep seam route, and Moss executed a little in-and-out route (what looked like an option route), catching the ball under Williams' coverage for a 13-yard gain. The interesting part of this play was Charles Woodson's corner blitz. He moved off slot coverage up to the line, which led to revolving coverage from deep safety to intermediate coverage on Williams' side from safety Charlie Peprah(notes), and a deeper zone look on Harvin from safety Nick Collins(notes). You can see Woodson and Williams pointing out different coverage assignments pre-snap, and I'm thinking that Williams was directed to drop off from tighter zone coverage when Woodson stepped up to blitz.
Favre's second of three second-half picks was a direct result of Williams' ability to trail a receiver down the sideline. As linebacker Desmond Bishop(notes) ran with Moss to the left out of the left slot, Williams kept one eye on Moss' destination and another on fullback Toby Gerhart(notes), who lined up wide and ran deep. Favre started a pass to the deep route, but he pulled it in and waited for what he thought was a wide-open Moss in the flat. Bishop came up with the pick. This was an epic fail on the Vikings' part -- the decision to put Gerhart wide and Moss in the slot is probably a terminable offense. The lack of effort Moss showed in coming back to the ball is something that Vince Young(notes) should note.
Over and over, the thing that impressed me most about Williams this season was the "right place, right time" concept. He seems to understand and thrive in Capers' more aggressive and varied defense than he did in 2009, and he will absolutely be a major factor in any chance of a Green Bay Super Bowl win.