Williams up to speed with retooled defense
Tramon Williams made his point clear as the Green Bay Packers cleaned out their lockers following January's playoff loss to San Francisco.
If this defense is going to take a step forward, the recipe for improvement required more veterans than the Packers had in 2013.
That's easier said than done under the Ted Thompson philosophy, but the Packers general manager was active this offseason compared to past years with the addition of eight-time Pro Bowler Julius Peppers and defensive lineman Letroy Guion.
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But was the re-signing of Sam Shields, B.J. Raji and Mike Neal enough to appease the 31-year-old cornerback?
"I'm excited with the moves we made," Williams said last week. "I think it will definitely pay off. I know Coach (Mike) McCarthy kind of spoke his mind about the situation and I feel as excited as he is."
The defense still will be young this year — the average age of the 41 players on its offseason roster is only 24.6 — but there's experience where it matters. As has been the case the past few years, the secondary starts with Williams.
It wasn't a certainty Williams would be back, though. The Packers dished out extensions to quarterback Aaron Rodgers and linebacker Clay Matthews last offseason, and it was thought Williams could be vulnerable with a $7.5 million salary in 2014 and $9.5 million cap number.
Williams has missed only one game over the past seven seasons, but nerve damage he sustained in his shoulder early in the 2011 season lingered for nearly two years. When he finally started feeling like himself again, he suffered a bone bruise and missed most of training camp last summer.
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It wasn't until midway through the season that things finally started to fall into place for Williams, who made all four of his turnovers during the last eight games of the regular season. Any questions about the health of his shoulder were quelled through Williams setting career-highs in tackles (83) and sacks (2½).
"That's my first time ever going through a phase like that of being injured but still play through it," Williams said. "Obviously, you're still going to take some heat for it because you're not playing at the level you're used to. But once I get healthy, man, the sky is the limit to what I can do."
Cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt never doubted he'd see this version of Williams again, the one that earned him a Pro Bowl bid after the 2010 season, during which he signed a five-year extension.
However, it was easy to forget exactly what he was up against with a truncated training camp.
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After the slow start, the coaching staff tried to get more out of him by switching him back to the slot in the sub-packages for the first time in four years and lining up Davon House across from Shields.
Williams eventually reverted back to playing full-time outside at midseason when rookie Micah Hyde took over the slot, and his game reached a turning point with eight tackles and an interception against the New York Giants on Nov. 17.
"He still had some football growing stuff he didn't get through training camp," Whitt said. "I'm sorry, you have to play the game to be at that football speed. He hit the stride come the New York game and he took off. … If you're looking for much better play than that, you're not going to get it from anybody in the league. Now, can we get it for 16 games and onto the playoffs and next year? I'm a firm believer if he's healthy we're going to get it."
Williams believed the secondary and entire defense had potential to be special last year, but still finished 23rd in passing defense (247.2 yards per game) and fell to a tie for 26th in interceptions (11). Part of that can be attributed to no safety forcing a turnover, but Williams places no blame.
In his mind, things just didn't "sync consistently." Some of the offseason moves should help that, along with veterans like Shields, Raji and Neal sliding into new roles defensively.
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The Packers re-signed Shields to a four-year deal for $39 million this offseason, a touch higher than the four-year, $33 million deal Williams signed in 2010. Casey Hayward's return from a recurring hamstring issue also should help the secondary's depth.
The Packers appear to have said goodbye to veteran linemen Ryan Pickett and Johnny Jolly, but Williams is back for an eighth season in Green Bay. For the first time in a long time, Williams is entering a season uninhibited.
"When you're injured, you tend to worry about different things," Williams said, "and all the time I focused on the task at hand fully. You understand what we're trying to do. The focus is not fully there at all times. I found myself with the focus there at all times and I was able to get back to doing what I do best. That's just a high level of football."
Now, it's up to the resurfaced defense to show the offseason changes were for the better.
"We know we have the guys in this room. You just have to unleash guys sometimes," Williams said. "I think that's more of what we're going to do. We have the players. We're just going to go out and try to get things together, and get on the same page with these practices and hopefully go out and show the type of players we can be."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.
ORGANIZED TEAM ACTIVITY PRACTICE
■ What: Packers practice open to the public
■ When: 11:30 a.m. Tuesday
■ Where: Ray Nitschke Field (subject to weather)