Sep 14, 2014; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals strong safety Shawn Williams (36) against the Atlanta Falcons at Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals won 24-10. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports
When veteran safety Taylor Mays chose to reunite with Mike Zimmer in Minnesota this offseason, he left a spot open in the defense. Although Mays wasn’t utilized enough in my opinion, he was occasionally employed in a nickel backer role over the past couple of seasons. This was especially true in 2013 when the Bengals were desperate for a linebacker after both Emmanuel Lamur and Sean Porter suffered season-ending shoulder injuries during the preseason.
Former defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer chose to get creative with the defense and began giving Mays a crash course in playing linebacker. Mays eventually became the teams primary nickel linebacker alongside Vontaze Burfict; he played 202 snaps in half a season that year before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury of his own. He did well to ameliorate Cincinnati’s poor defense against tight ends even given the extremely short time span he had to acquaint himself with his new position.
Mays’ success in this role with Zimmer is likely the reason he chose to exit Cincinnati to reunite with his former defensive maestro. It’s likely that fans won’t really feel the impact of his loss, but personally I believe the team missed an opportunity to really watch Mays flourish in the role by not employing him enough. But regardless of this opinion, Mays’ exit leaves a small, albeit important role in the defense vacant and it seems logical that third-year safety Shawn Williams steps up in 2015.
Williams came to the Bengals via a third-round selection in the 2013 NFL Draft. He was seen as a promising strong safety out of Georgia who had worked his way into a starting role in the same way he is with the Bengals, via the special teams unit. His draft stock may have taken a hit at the time due to his billing as a non-impressive athlete (though it should be noted his combine numbers weren’t bad by any means), yet respected draft analyst Gil Brandt had some nice praise for Williams at the time.
"“Williams is not a good-looking athlete, but the best way to describe him is as a “football player,” meaning that while he doesn’t work out well he does shine when it’s 11-on-11 on the field.”"
He is a fiery player who shows his intense demeanor through actions; you only need to watch a single highlight reel before you get the point regarding his hitting ability.
But Williams’ intensity doesn’t end there. Shawn Williams isn’t afraid to be vocal. He certainly isn’t afraid of letting his teammates know when the effort and production isn’t there and isn’t shy about letting opponents know where he’s at either.
As for Shawn Williams’ skill set, he came to the NFL as a capable “box” safety. He may have needed some refining in terms of ensuring tackles versus focusing on delivering the big hits, but he was more than capable in this situation. He also is a capable blitzer and has the ability to read and react to plays.
The problem for Williams was his coverage ability. During his rookie season, Mike Zimmer seemed to be hard on Williams, yet expressed optimism in Williams’ ability to grow in coverage. Although he hasn’t had much of an opportunity to display any improvement yet due to the stellar play of Reggie Nelson and George Iloka, Williams improved in this area during his rookie offseason, and has since enticed Marvin Lewis enough to be labeled as a player he’d like to see more of in the coming season.
Shawn Williams has done an excellent job to date of doing all he can to earn a spot on the defense. The Bengals already had a stellar free safety in Nelson and an emerging strong safety in Iloka when Williams arrived in town. Iloka’s emergence kept Williams at bay, yet Williams has grown in one of the more prolific special teams players in the NFL and has been lauded by special teams coach Darrin Simmons. Over the past two years, Williams has played on 81.5% of the Bengals’ special teams snaps and is likely to become the next captain of the unit once a spot is vacated by either Cedric Peerman and/or Vincent Rey.
This offseason should prove to be an exciting one for Shawn Williams. If he can prove he’s improved enough in coverage, he’ll likely earn time playing on defense in the nickel backer role. Unlike Mays, Williams won’t nearly surrender as much against the run as the more capable “box” safety between the two, yet it remains to be seen if Williams can cover tight ends and running backs as well as Mays did.
Having the opportunity to add Williams’ kind of intensity, leadership, and work ethic to the defense should have fans rooting for him in anticipation of seeing what he can do “when it’s 11-on-11 on the field.”
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