At first glance, Casey Hayward doesn’t believe it.
This Tramon Williams, the same guy who’s been making one play after another throughout training camp, is coming off a season that even Williams himself describes as a “down year?”
Nonsense. As a casual observer, a rookie cornerback with no frame of reference, Hayward isn’t buying it.
The only Williams Hayward is used to seeing is the one whose play has been more indicative of his Pro Bowl season in 2010 than the bystander role he assumed a year ago on a Green Bay Packers defense that allowed an NFL-record number of passing yards.
To Hayward, Williams looks like the same shut-down cornerback he was before the physicality was removed from his game following a collision with safety Nick Collins during Week 1 of last season that resulted in nerve damage and a nagging shoulder injury for the rest of the season.
“I don’t know where he’s been, but right now he looks great,” said Hayward, a second-round pick in April’s NFL draft. “I haven’t seen many people catch balls on him in the game. He’s one of the most competitive guys on the team. If he gets caught on in practice, he goes after the person on the next play. I haven’t seen too many flaws in his game.”
Standing at the center of a small media huddle Tuesday, Williams cracked the slightest of grins when asked about the shoulder’s condition today.
The Packers’ locker room is the only place Williams thinks about it. On the field, where it counts, the Packers’ No. 1 cornerback is flying around again like the same carefree kid who was a long shot to make the roster in 2007.
At age 29, the sixth-year veteran feels he’s back to being a difference-maker for a defense that desperately needs an anchor after plummeting from fifth to 32nd in total defense a year ago.
“I’m not thinking about my shoulder,” Williams said. “I have a lot more strength in it than I had last year and just going out and playing. I don’t think about it, I don’t think about hitting anybody. I don’t think about none of that. I’m just going out and playing.”
Williams missed only one game with the injury — Week 2 against Carolina — but the effect it had on his performance the rest of the year was evident.
According to Pro Football Focus, Williams surrendered more yardage than any other cornerback in the NFL, giving up 61 catches for 1,034 yards in 15 regular-season games. Only one cornerback, New Orleans’ Jabari Greer (353), allowed more yards after catch than Williams’ 341.
The previous year — when he was elected to his first Pro Bowl — Williams was as stingy as they come, allowing the fifth-fewest passing yards (523) during the regular season for cornerbacks who played more than 75 percent of downs.
In 20 total games in 2010, including playoffs, Williams gave up only 56 catches for 690 yards while posting two shutouts.
“He’s such a critical guy in our defense because so many times he’s going to be matched up on their best receiver,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “Last year was such a tough year to evaluate the physical part of things because of what he was battling the whole year. The year before, I thought he was plenty physical and hopefully he’s back to that stage.”
Through the first three games of the preseason, Williams has looked the part of the team’s top cornerback. He’s back to playing physical, making solo tackles in the open field and breaking up passes with pain-free extension of his body.
Those tools showed during the Packers’ 27-13 win over Cincinnati last Thursday when Williams was called on to cover the Bengals’ rising star, A.J. Green, and limited him to one catch for 3 yards through the first half.
When Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton attempted to sling a corner end-zone lob to Green with Williams in man coverage, the 5-foot-11, 191-pound cornerback batted away the pass and almost came away with his second interception of the preseason.
Capers and Williams have hinted that it will be Williams’ top priority to shadow the opposing team’s top receiver this season, especially given the team’s relatively inexperienced contingent and Charles Woodson’s move to safety in the base defense.
He’s ready for the challenge. While last year might have had its ups and downs, Williams believes he’s back to being the steady presence the Packers and rookies like Hayward have grown accustomed to.
“Obviously, I came off a down year,” Williams said. “I’m back at it. I’m refocused. Just like our defense, I’m refocused, our whole team refocused because at the end of the day, it’s about winning the Super Bowl and if you don’t get that accomplished, it all fails.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.