ATLANTA – Is it possible to outplay a contract extension in less than two months?
Well, put it this way: If you told Green Bay Packers management that cornerback Tramon Williams(notes), after signing a four-year extension in late November reportedly worth $33 million, would go on to get two interceptions in December and then three in two playoff games in January, they'd probably be satisfied.
And in the latter three instances, those weren't your run-of-the-mill interceptions, like at the end of a half or on a deep pass that was some de-facto punt. The first one stopped a potential game-winning touchdown pass in the closing moments of Green Bay's wild-card victory over the Philadelphia Eagles. The second prevented another touchdown in the divisional round against the Atlanta Falcons.
Finally, the third one put the Falcons, the NFC's top seed, on life support after Williams returned it 70 yards for a touchdown en route to a 48-21 victory that put the Packers in next Sunday's NFC title game against the Chicago Bears.
[Photos: See Williams' prowess on the field]
Yeah, it doesn't take much to realize Green Bay spent its money well on Williams.
"He's a bargain at anything under $10 million a year. If he had gotten anywhere near free agency, even as a restricted guy, I know five teams that would have paid $11 or $12 million a year, easy … and they would have given up the draft picks too," one NFC general manager said.
"He's 100 percent legitimate. Sure, it helps having [Charles] Woodson on the other side – that was kind of the case when they had Al Harris(notes)," the GM continued. "Now I think it's the other way. Because Williams is so good, Woodson is the one who has more freedom than ever because you can do so many things."
That's pretty good for a guy who went undrafted in 2006, failed to make the Houston Texans' regular-season roster after signing a free-agent deal shortly after the NFL draft and didn't join the Packers' practice squad until Nov. 29 of that year. Likewise, Williams wasn't even recruited out of high school, where he was a teammate of New York Giants running back Brandon Jacobs(notes) in Napoleonville, La. He subsequently walked on at Louisiana Tech, taking a little time away from his pursuit of electrical engineering to try this football thing.
Having passed on following in the footsteps of Edison, Faraday and Tesla, Williams is doing a nice job following the path of Sanders, Lott and Lane.
"It is clear that Tramon Williams has played at a Pro Bowl level," said Packers coach Mike McCarthy after Saturday's victory over the Falcons. "It is all about seeing your big-time players step up in the prime-time games. … However, Tramon has been playing at this level all year."
Actually, Williams has been here for nearly three years, though he has yet to be named to this year's NFC Pro Bowl roster. After the Packers signed him in '06, they started grooming him as a replacement for Harris, one of the more physical, man-to-man coverage corners in the game during his prime. The difference is that Harris' style didn't work when the Packers made the conversion to a 3-4 defense in 2009. Throw age and injury on top of that (Harris, now with the Miami Dolphins, is 36 and was coming off two seasons in which he missed a combined 10 games and opened this season hurt) and you have the usual array of reasons for making a transition.
In the 3-4 system run by Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers, cornerbacks need to play in multiple fashions, going from man to zone coverage one play after another. It's part of the art of disguising the coverage. In addition, having the ability to switch from one side of the field to the other, which Williams does seamlessly, is a critical advantage.
"Coach Capers is really good at knowing what to call and when to take advantage of what I do," Williams said. "He's always thinking two or three plays ahead about whether we should be in man or zone and how I should play it. He challenges me that way."
Williams is adept at all of it, as this postseason has demonstrated. Against Philadelphia, with the clock ticking down under a minute, Eagles quarterback Michael Vick(notes) tried to sneak a potential game-winning touchdown throw to wide receiver Riley Cooper(notes) over the top of the Packers defense, on the offense's left side, on first down at the Green Bay 27-yard line.
Williams gets in front of Cooper to foil the Eagles' game-winning play.
(Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
Williams, in man coverage, left Vick no room for error. When Vick slightly underthrew the pass, trying to hit Cooper in stride rather than forcing the receiver to leap for it in the back of the end zone, Williams snagged it for the clinching interception with 33 seconds remaining.
On Saturday in Atlanta, Williams did that performance one better – actually, two better, turning a 14-14 game into a rout in the span of little more than two minutes.
On the first play, Atlanta was facing third-and-21 from the Green Bay 26. The natural call in that situation is for the offense to take a shot deep because there is little chance for a first down. The Packers countered by playing zone, with Williams sitting underneath the deep part of the field on the offense's right.
That allowed Atlanta's Michael Jenkins(notes) to get free for a second. When Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan(notes) waited a split second too long to release the ball and lofted the ball too high, Williams snagged his second interception and ended the threat.
"I think Matt put too much air under it, but it would have been a hard throw either way," Williams said in a matter-of-fact tone.
The Packers converted that turnover for a touchdown and a 21-14 lead in a game that was quickly looking like a shootout. That forced the Falcons to try and drive for a score just before halftime. What Atlanta got instead was another big play by Williams.
Facing a second-and-19 from the Green Bay 35 with eight seconds and no timeouts remaining, the Falcons tried to sneak a short pass in along the sideline to shorten a field-goal attempt. Williams baited Ryan into thinking there was an opening, this time playing a soft man coverage along the left side. Williams snared the ball at the 30 and returned it 70 yards for a 28-14 lead at halftime.
"That was a tough play," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "It ended up really turning the tide right before the half … it really started to snowball from that point."
Remarkably, it was the first interception return of his life.
Not high school?
Not Pop Warner?
It also led to one other first for Williams, who stepped onto a podium and in front of a lectern for a postgame interview.
"I've never been in front of one of these," Williams said with a soft chuckle and zero attitude.
For the Packers, it was a nice payoff. More important, it was an immediate one.