The special teams unit is the continually forgotten one by average fans, full of players whose careers rely on these every-so-often plays that often present a foregone conclusion. This oversight is a mistake when it comes to watching the Bengals. They have proven these players can find a larger role through their efforts on ST while they await their opportunity. Vincent Rey came to the Bengals as an unheralded college free agent in 2010. He has made his mark by playing special teams the last few years, as one of the unit’s top tacklers. Because of it, he has become a leader within the unit and in the locker room. This past year he was given an opportunity to contribute after Rey Maualuga suffered an injury. He played so well that fans are calling for him to become the full-time starting middle linebacker. He is an example to his younger teammates of the success that ST play can bring. The unit has been amongst the best in the NFL in recent years and one particular player will be the next leader of the unit and should follow Rey’s path towards contributing within the defense.
Shawn Williams came to the Bengals in 2013 as a third round pick. He’s a true leader and has the instincts to be a quality NFL strong safety. He’s strong and thick-bodied, so when delivering hits he does so with force. He was a two-time winner of the True Grit Award at Georgia, which is given to the player who displays toughness and pure determination on the field. He has extensive experience playing in the box so he’s adept at defending the run and tracking the ball. He would be perfect for the AFC North, which emphasizes the run. According to former defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer he has the skills to be effective against the pass:
“He’s got the ability to cover. He’s got to work on his technique some. If he just gets his body position in good shape he should be good.”
He displayed good ball skills in practice during his rookie year on at least a couple of occasions. Taylor Mays is on a one-year deal with the team and, if he leaves in 2015, Williams could also replace him within this LB/S hybrid role possessing the speed and strength to do so. But the team avoided drafting another safety this year, which means they may see Williams as the team’s future starter alongside George Iloka.
Williams greatest impact in the near future will be on special teams. Before he arrived in Cincinnati he had already gained experience playing on special teams while at Georgia. Since, he’s been extremely productive and is an emerging leader within the unit. He led the team in ST tackles last year with 14 and earned a glowing endorsement from ST coach Darrin Simmons:
“He’s very intense. He’s someone I respect because he’s very smart. He pays attention in every meeting. For young guys who haven’t played on special teams as much, they come in here and put in so much effort just learning their position. Sometimes it takes them awhile to get the whole feel of the grand scheme and how they fit. I could put Shawn at virtually any position in any phase and he would do fine because he has a grand scope of understanding.”
“All these guys are four-phase players…and Shawn’s a five…so that’s like starting five personnel groupings and they have to learn five unique skill sets (kickoff, kickoff return, punt, punt return, field goal block), so that’s five completely different positions. To absorb all that and to learn all that and be able to be effective is a big thing.”
While at Georgia, Williams wasn’t afraid to call out his teammates when they were “playing soft.” It’s this type of intensity that excites fans and may remind them of the defense’s current leader, Vontaze Burfict. Like Burfict, Williams has a high football IQ, diagnosing plays pre-snap and reacting quickly to make stops. This knowledge along with a comprehensive understanding of a scheme, enables a leader to get his teammates into the correct positions. Having Williams in the secondary and Burfict in the front would give the defense an extraordinary amount of knowledge, leadership, and intensity. Opposing receivers would need to be aware with Williams roaming in the middle of the field and the run defense would get a huge boost. Williams great contributions to ST will give him the necessary time to improve his technique against the pass. The rest of the AFC North better hope he never does.