GREEN BAY – Enter the mind of Tramon Williams. It’s the first play of Thursday’s Green Bay Packers exhibition. His eyes dart to the Pittsburgh Steelers' backfield.
He sees a rookie quarterback behind center. No running back.
A thought develops.
“Most times,” Williams said, “most teams run quick game out of empty looks. If you run a lot of blitzes, they know they’ve got to get the ball out quick.”
Williams knows the Steelers don’t have enough pass protection to throw downfield. He also figures Steelers coach Mike Tomlin would like to start his rookie’s night with an easy throw. Before the snap, Williams is on his toes. He’s ready to jump a shallow route.
He sees Steelers receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey release off the line of scrimmage, then stop and turn after four steps. Williams starts running to intersect the passing lane almost before Mason Rudolph releases the football.
The rest was easy.
Williams caught Rudolph’s pass on the first snap of the Packers' eventual 51-34 rout almost like he was the intended receiver and – welcome to the NFL, kid – returned it 25 yards for a touchdown. It was Williams’ first snap since returning to the Packers last spring, and he showed everyone why the Packers dished out $10 million over two years for a 35-year-old cornerback.
“For a guy who couldn’t play,” Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said, “pretty good.”
BOX SCORE: Packers 51, Steelers 34
These past two seasons – ever since Sam Shields’ concussions ended his time in Green Bay – the Packers' secondary has been known for its mistakes. There have been communication breakdowns, blown assignments. It’s why the Packers weren’t scared of Williams’ age this spring.
They needed his experience.
It’s been a while since the Packers had a cornerback with the savvy to recognize an empty backfield on the game’s first play, and see six points going the other way. His mind made the interception happen. Williams is trying to raise the level through the entire cornerback group, and not just physically.
Playing smarter remains a work in progress.
“I’m trying to get guys consistent,” he said. “Trying to make sure guys are in tune with the defense, everybody know what they’re supposed to be doing, and that’s what happened on a couple of those drives when those guys got to moving the ball. A couple mishaps, couple miscommunications, and guys let a couple guys run free.
“Those things happen. You want to get them cleaned up in preseason. Hopefully we can get those things cleaned up.”
Midway through August, it’s much too early to know what caliber the Packers secondary will play at this season. But Thursday night was promising. A dearth of playmaking last season – the Packers ranked tied for 20th with 11 interceptions – led general manager Brian Gutekunst to invest in the position this spring.
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Williams wasn’t the only cornerback who made plays against the Steelers.
In the third quarter, it was Josh Jackson’s turn to jump a shallow out route. Jackson planted his feet 10 yards downfield and waited for Steelers receiver Damoun Patterson to come to him.
Before Patterson broke his route toward the sideline, Jackson was already heading there to cut him off. When Steelers quarterback Joshua Dobbs’ pass arrived, Jackson was waiting for it. A converted receiver, Jackson flashed the ball skills that helped him lead college football last season with eight interceptions, including a pair of interceptions returned for touchdowns against Wisconsin.
Most corners, perhaps, would have caught the football and ended the play by going out of bounds. Jackson’s momentum carried him toward the sideline, but his field awareness helped him turn upfield before running out of bounds.
“I knew I was close,” Jackson said, “but I just tried to stay inbounds and just take off. I’m glad I didn’t step out.”
The play – a 22-yard touchdown return – was almost identical to how Williams started the game. They have similar uniform numbers: Jackson wears No. 37, Williams No. 38.
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Williams said the ball skills and field awareness weren’t what impressed him most. Instead, it was the rookie’s recognition.
“They funny part about it,” Williams said, “is he picked it up during the game, which is impressive from a rookie. He came to the sideline and told us that he kept getting the same route, kept getting the same route. They came to his side, and he picked it. For a rookie to recognize it that early in the game is pretty impressive. That’s something you want to see.”
It’s the higher level of cornerback play the Packers badly need. Williams, the unquestioned leader, sets the standard for his group. If the others follow, learn from his wealth of experience, the Packers could leave their blown assignments in the past.
Jackson finished his first professional pick-six with a little flair, skipping in the end zone and letting the football roll off his fingertips, George Gervin style. It was almost a perfect play, except one detail.
“I didn’t (Lambeau) Leap,” he said. “I’ve got to wait until the regular season.”
With smarter play like the Packers secondary showed Thursday night, there should be more opportunities ahead.