DJ Williams: Paradigm Shift

"A thing cannot be both itself and something else, at the same time, and in the same respect."--Aristotle

The Right time, the Right Place

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In 2004 an interesting OLB prospect came into the draft as a senior out of Linebacker U. He was fast (4.48 40yd, faster than most WR), freakishly agile (11.4 in the 60yd shuttle, beating the benchmarks set for coverage safeties) and unbelievably explosive (38" vertical, higher than was expected out of CBs and WRs). DJ Williams entered the draft with teammate Jonathon Vilma as the top linebacking prospects, hands down.

Part of what set DJ apart was tremendous lower body strength, which gave him exceptional balance, heightened his agility and made him a powerful hitter. He was regarded as "instinctive in the gap", and a natural at reading his zone. In fact it was rare to find a dissenting opinion on his future greatness and potential. John Madden, who spoke at Williams High Scool team banquet remarked, "DJ is the only player I have ever seen who could go straight from highschool to the pro level." There was only one unanswered question in the minds of many scouts who watched DJ: "You will not see sixty minutes from him in any one game where he absolutely dominated," one NFL scouting director said. "But you see that he is still learning and progressing. You like to see that. I just wonder if he’ll ever be able to play up to his best all the time."

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Elsewhere, The Denver Broncos struggled with adversity at the linebacking position. Known for their elite speed in the linebacking corp, Mike Shanahan's Broncos saw that edifice crumble before them, just as a defensive line featuring Bertrand Berry and Trevor Pryce had begun to gel. Instead of entering the prime of a defensive front seven with furious speed and power, they found themselves saying goodbye to Berry who left in free agency to the Cardinals, making the Pro Bowl there, goodbye to OLB Ian Gold who followed a high-paying free agency contract to Tampa Bay, and goodby to John Mobley, who was forced into retirement early from a spinal injury sustained in 2003. Left with only the outstanding MLB Al Wilson and a shambles of a defensive line, the Broncos circled the wagons.

They quickly resigned the Nigerian, Patrick Chukwurah, who had failed to stick in Minnesota and Houston, and who had even been cut from Denver's own roster a year earlier. Beggars can't be choosers however, and Denver brought in the hybrid DE/OLB. They then turned their sights towards the draft, where they saw the next incarnation of their fast and powerful defensive philosophy fall to them at #17 in the first round as the decade's strongest QB class gobbled up the spots at the top of the board.

The freakishly fast and athletic DJ Williams was a Denver Bronco.

Not A Lot of Choices

When DJ arrived in Denver, they couldn't afford the luxury of developing the young player. They were simply out of options at LB, and needed DJ to produce immediately. In light of this, he was to take the very natural position of WLB, while Wilson maintained the MLB spot and Chukwurah/Spragan manned the SLB position. As HoosierTeacher explains, the "WILL" position was ideal for capitalizing on DJs raw skills early in his career:

ROLB (WILL, WLB)

The simplest position for a LB. The LB most likely to blitz (since he is on the blindside of most QB’s). He also plays zone on the side of the field least likely to see a run. Rarely in man coverage in most schemes. Often plays as one of the two LBs in a nickel formation since he is typically the fastest LB and is needed in case of the pass.

Man – Show Blitz

First, let’s understand what the Show Blitz system is. Under Coyer, the system is an attacking defense that strives to disrupt the passing game through deception and pressure, and the running game through more deception and either 1) gap control or 2) deep disruption. More on this in a moment. Unlike other applications that are more common, Coyer used his people in more man than zone.

The offense has to deal with choices, typically in two’s, on every play. One, does the defense bring a heavy blitz or not. To sell the "Show" the choice has to be all or nothing. No little blitzes, it’s "all or nothing". If the blitz comes it will be massive. If not, coverage will be excellent and anyone put in to pass block has been "wasted". When the other team tries to get out of the ugly cycle, the defense simply sends the entire defense up against the line of scrimmage to "show the blitz" (which is the most common visable feature of the defense and is the idea behind the name of the system, "showing the blitz").

On passes the offense is always guessing. Do they keep extra people back in pass protection (FB, RB, TE[s]) in anticipation of a devastating blitz, or do they send those people out on routes knowing they are going to be covered heavily? (In some instances, the rush is almost non-existent because even linemen may be pulled back into a zone on obvious pass plays, though this is uncommon).

On runs there are choices as well. Let’s confine our discussion to the OLBs since we are concerned with Williams. On blitzing plays (which are always heavy) one doesn’t want to ignore the danger of the RB slipping through. Thus, in blitzes the LBs each must have a different gap assignment to exploit. The LBs may either 1) penetrate the gap and disrupt the run in the backfield, or 2) failing to get penetration, keep his man occupied to allow another LB or DL to get through. A good OLB in this system must have speed, and the ability to stay on his feet when facing a run block while pass rushing. If he stays on his feet he can still stop the run.

On the run plays the LBs will stop the run by ensuring every gap is plugged and attempting to penetrate (backfield disruption), while the safeties watch for a back to slip through. OR, if no blitz is made, the LBs will play man (under Coyer’s application) . Here again, does a run play have to account for an overwhelming assault on the offensive line, or a DL switching between 1 and 2 gap assignments while each potential runner (RB or FB) is accounted for?

DJ at WILL in "man-Show blitz"

At WILL Williams has the speed to be an effective blitzer outside the LT. He goes around the LT, but if he gets wrapped up he must try to shake his blocker to the outside (preventing a wide run if the play is run, but allowing the DE penetration between the now occupied LT and the LG for a pass rush). On non-blitz plays, Williams will often stance to show a blitz, but will watch for a FB to sneak out weakside for a screen while going man (along with the MLB) on the RB.

A Stunning Debut

Williams started his career by being the first Broncos rookie in 6 years to start on opening day. And on that day he went on to lead the team in tackles, a sign of things to come. The next week saw him record the first sack of his NFL career. In October, Williams went on a streak, leading the team in tackles 4 out of 5 games, all the while contributing special teams tackles, including his first Monday Night game, where he contributed 8 tackles (all solo) 3 special teams stops and a defensed pass.

Rather than cooling off as the season entered the final stretch, DJ only got hotter, begining November with a game against Houston that saw him lead the team in tackles once again. The records will say he wasn't a starter on that day, but that is due to the vagaries of listing a nickel lineup as the base formation for the game. Don't be fooled. DJ wasn't even begining to slow down. After totaling 40 tackles, one sack, one interception, one forced fumble and four pass breakups in four December games, Williams was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month and became the first Bronco in franchise history to receive that award. He finished out the season winning ProFootballWeekly all-rookie award, finishing 3rd in defensive rookie of the year voting, and leading the entire team in tackles with 114 (82 solo), a feat never before accomplished in Broncos history by a rookie.

DJ had officially answered the smallest of gripes regarding his professional career. He could be counted on to do his best.

Non-Contradiction

DJ's amazing rookie season culminated in his first start in a playoff game, which unfortunately became a rout by the Indianapolis Colts, the second time in as many years that Denver's post-season efforts had come up short against a prolific passing attack. And while DJ had afforded the team the unexpected opportunity to continue to develop the defensive roster without worrying about the WLB position, an equally unexpected event altered the direction the Broncos were about to take.

Williams, a unigue blend of athleticism and speed had been plugged in at a WILL LB position that benefitted greatly from disruptiveness on the weakside. It had seemed the ideal match. Your most disruptive player at the most disruptive spot. Despite the early exit from the playoffs, the possibilities of addressing CB in the upcoming 2005 draft made the future look much brighter. And in the midst of this growth came the return of Ian Gold, the original speedy weakside LB. He would return to Denver, but he had a stipulation: he wanted to play his old position, the WILL.

If the Broncos hesitated on this precipice, you couldn't tell. Soon they had a weakside LB in camp paired once again with Al Wilson, and images of the ferociously fast LB corp of old returned. Of course, now Denver had to deal with the fact that they had what seemed like two weakside LBs and no strongside LBs, but it turned out that the Broncos had a plan, one that you had to wonder if it would have been born when DJ was drafted. Or if it would have seemed out of place. Gold would man his favored spot at the WILL position, and DJ would return the #52 to him. DJ would be the new SAM.

In the background, quietly and without fanfare, DJ quit being a WILL, and accepted his new role.

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