Lost in the frenzy and finger-pointing of the Green Bay Packers’ disappointing defensive effort this season is the particular decline of one player. Though I have been harping about the poor play of the linebackers, cornerback Tramon Williams must be singled out for his 2012 performance.
Formerly a shutdown corner, Williams seemed all out of sorts this year. He was often caught out of position and, even more frequently, allowed his man to get behind the defense. He used to be a dependable tackler, but was unable to bring any opponent down this season. His play against the run has been particularly pitiful as Williams has appeared to almost shy away from contact, rather than seeking it out as he once did.
Williams rose from a college walk-on and undrafted free agent who was cut from the Houston Texans before the 2006 season. He signed with the Packers later in that season and worked his way up the depth chart over the next couple of years. When Packers’ cornerback Al Harris was injured in 2009, Williams won the starting spot opposite Charles Woodson. With Harris still recovering at the start of the 2010 season, Williams again started and began to show his mettle on the field.
He had a great 2010 season, picking off 6 passes, but it was in the playoffs that Williams put himself in the discussion for best cornerback in the NFL. There didn’t seem to be anyone he couldn’t cover. As the Packers blazed their way to the Super Bowl, Williams methodically shut down the best receiver on each opposing team. Packers fans will remember how seemingly every playoff game ended on a Tramon Williams interception; he had three in that postseason. Against the Atlanta Falcons, Williams intercepted Matt Ryan in the endzone late in the first half, only to score a touchdown on another interception just minutes later.
In Super Bowl XLV, the Packers were up six and the Pittsburgh Steelers were facing 4th-and-5 with under a minute left in the game. When Ben Roethlisberger threw the Steelers’ last-hope pass to receiver Mike Wallace, it was Williams who was there to knock out the ball from Wallace’s hands. (Seriously, look it up. Williams plays gorgeous defense on the ball.)
Going into the 2011 season, Williams was one of the top cornerbacks in the league, but he suffered a severe shoulder injury in the opening game. Though he would play nearly every game, there was no question that the shoulder injury was preventing Williams from playing his preferred physical style. One test revealed that nerve function in his injured shoulder was at just 15%.
You can chalk Tramon’s bad 2011 performance to the fact that he probably shouldn’t have even been playing with that injury, but there is no clear reason for his subpar performance this season. There has been no indication from Williams or the team that the 2011 injury has lingered or has had any effect on him. He had only two interceptions in 2012, his lowest total since his first season. More than the stats, you could simply see Williams get beat in coverage time and again this season.
To be fair, Williams draws the toughest assignment, week in and week out. He is asked to cover the opponent’s best receiving weapon – the Calvin Johnson’s, the Brandon Marhsall‘s, the Victor Cruz‘s. Furthermore, it’s not always clear to spectators who’s at fault when a coverage is blown. Sometimes the safety was supposed to help over the top; sometimes the cornerback was supposed to cover on his own.
That said, it’s perplexing how one guy goes from being perhaps the best in the league at his position to a liability. The Packers have an impressive crop of young guys in the secondary who should only improve with experience, but Williams’ decline will be an important subplot to watch in the 2013 season.