As the news broke yesterday that Saints starting #2 cornerback Ken Crawley is being “benched” for poor overall performance in the first 2 games of the regular season right before the team faces the hated arch-rival Falcons at Atlanta in a critical early-season NFC South Divisional game tomorrow afternoon, New Orleans will have a new player that will now will have to step up and fill that role.
Until further notice, unless something drastic happens between now and tomorrow’s kickoff at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in downtown Atlanta, it appears at least for the moment that the man who be filling that role is 4th year cornerback P.J. Williams, the team’s 3rd Round 2015 Draft choice out of Florida State University.
But this morning, some Saints fans are wondering: is PJ ready to succeed where Crawley couldn’t?
That all likely depends on your personal point of view.
Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert
As first reported yesterday by NOLA.com /The Times-Picayune beat writer Josh Katzenstein:
Williams started the first 3 games to begin last season before it was Crawley who replaced him in the Week #4 at London, England against Miami, and then made a key interception that earned him the starting #2 CB role on the opposite side of #1 CB Marshon Lattimore, for the duration of the 2017 season.
But now here we are nearly a year later, and Katzenstein reports that the two cornerbacks are switching roles as the Saints are planning to bench Crawley in tomorrow’s game against the Falcons at Atlanta, according to a league source.
As we noted here at Saints News Network a few days back: Crawley has struggled MIGHTILY in the first two games this season, after getting TORCHED on a couple of long touchdown passes in man-to-man coverage against Tampa Bay vs, Buccameers WR DeSean Jackson, and then once again this past Sunday against Cleveland Browns rookie WR Antonio Callaway.
(John Kuntz, cleveland.com)
“I think he wants to improve and feels like he can play better,” head coach Sean Payton said to reporters yesterday, in regard to Crawley. “But I think collectively, I think the group needs to, and I think you’ll see the numbers for the corner (position) improve.”
As Katzenstein notes: while Crawley was starting, Williams was inactive against the Buccaneers in Week #1, and only played a total of 2 whole defensive snaps last week vs, Cleveland — but says that he’ll be ready to play Sunday if he has the chance (which he does now that it’s been made official).
“Whenever you get that opportunity, you got to be ready,” Williams said to reporters Friday as he was leaving the facility. “It’s tough, man. You always want to be out there to try to help the team, but at the end of the day, you’re just out there trying to get better and I just prepare like I’m going to play.”
After Crawley took the #2 spot away from him before the Dolphins game in England last year, Williams played later on near the end of the 2017 season as the team’s #3 cornerback, primarily lining up in the slot, but it wasn’t a good thing for him to lose the starting job he’d waited to have after dealing with long-term injuries in 2015 and 2016, his first two professional seasons.
Photo courtesy of USA TODAY Sports
“He had a good camp, and we feel like we’re deeper at that position than we have been maybe in the last two or three years,” Payton said of Williams. “He’s doing well. That group in general has got experience, and I think not only experience, but they’ve played well.”
Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen echoed the sentiment of Payton yesterday, and he told Katznstein that the defensive coaching staff “has zero issues” putting Williams in the game.
“I think P.J. is doing well,” Allen said. “He’s continued to practice well, he’s continued to put himself in a competitive environment, and that’s the thing that you have to be able to do in our league. Because you never know from week to week who’s going to be playing, when they’re going to be playing, how they’re going to be playing based off of injuries or whatever the case may be.”
However, it must be important to note: in his 4th year as a professional football player, Williams has played in exactly a grand total of 5 games in 3 NFL seasons that have actually counted in the standings.
Photo courtesy of United Press International (UPI)
He missed all of his rookie season in 2015 with a torn hamstring, and then of course there was the 2016 season two years ago; where in a road game in Week #2 of that season against the New York Giants, he suffered a concussion so severe that it forced him to miss the remaining 14 games of the regular season and saw him placed on injured reserve for a 2nd straight year.
The injury last year occurred when Williams was struck by two knees in his head and neck area on a 1st-quarter play, one from then-Giants tight end Larry Donnell and another from Saints linebacker Craig Robertson.
He was KNOCKED OUT COLD on the field, and players from both teams — realizing what had taken place — immediately waved the medical staff onto the field. It was actually a Giants trainer who tended to Williams first.
Williams subsequently then laid on the MetLife Stadium turf for approximately 5 minutes, before trainers strapped him to a backboard with his helmet still on, and rushed him to a local hospital in nearby New Jersey.
Afterwards in the post-game press conference, Payton told reporters that Williams was completely unconscious for “a good portion” of the time he was on the field after suffering the injury.
Photo by Al Bello, Getty Images
The 25-year old’s season was essentially over before it ever got a chance to start, and now almost two years removed from that fateful day Williams suddenly finds himself about to be thrust back into the fire of one of the NFL’s toughest positions: the outside boundary cornerback position.
But the question still must be asked:
Is he ready to take over and succeed now where Crawley couldn’t?
My good friend, The Athletic.com Saints film analyst and Canal Street Chronicles Co-Editor / film analyst Walter “Reverend Deuce” Windham put out this video analysis (click PLAY right below) of Williams that he made for his “Who Dat Confessional” podcast program last year during the 2017 Pre-Season; in which he said then that he believed Williams was ready to assume the #2 starting CB spot, but just needed more repetitions and game experience to grow into the role.
Presumably until further notice, Williams will now fill that role beginning on the road tomorrow afternoon in the great state of Georgia.
Windham notes that Williams has great athleticism and closing speed to play the outside boundary position, but needs to re-fine his coverage techniques with regard to things such as the reading and recognition of receiver routes, and knowing when to engage the opposing receiver off the line of scrimmage in press coverage.
Williams, the Saints’ 3rd Round selection (#78 overall) in the 2015 NFL Draft, has all the unlimited potential in the world to become a very special player for New Orleans, but has to show that he himself can remain healthy given his past issues with staying on the field thus far in a Saints uniform.
And he’ll also likely have to prove that he can hang with dynamic brand new rookie #2 Falcons wide receiver and former University of Alabama star Calvin Ridley when the Saints visit Atlanta tomorrow.
Ridley last Sunday caught four of five targets for 64 yards and a touchdown during the Falcons’ 31-24 win over the Panthers.
Photo courtesy of The Associated Press
Ridley finished second on the team in targets and tied Falcons #1 WR Julio Jones for the lead in receiving yards, scoring his first career NFL touchdown on an 11-yard reception in the 2nd quarter.
Ridley didn’t record a catch and was targeted just twice in Week #1 at Philadelphia, but his role expanded notably just recently with Falcons RB Devonta Freeman (knee) sidelined and out for tomorrow’s game; and the opposition keying in on Jones.
Ridley’s role could fluctuate throughout the season, but he certainly will be looking to test Williams early and often.
Now it’s up to PJ Williams to PROVE that he is up to the task.
As it is, the Ocala, Florida native was considered a virtual “steal” for the Saints, who were glad to still see him sitting on the Draft Board in the 3rd Round of that 2015 NFL Draft, which no doubt was due in part to his well-publicized pair of traffic arrests by the Tallahassee Police Department for a 2014 hit-and-run (of which he was eventually cleared) and a DUI (right before the Draft).
Photo courtesy of The Tallahassee Democrat
Before those personal issues, Williams was a 3-time All-ACC “lockdown” CB at Florida State, including a Defensive MVP performance in the 2014 BCS National Championship Game against Auburn — where he recorded seven tackles and an interception while helping the Seminoles win the National Championship.
But Williams has shown that those days are behind him, and it would appear that now he is more than ready to be a key contributor for the Saints defensive secondary in 2018; which after yesterday’s breaking news regarding Crawley, now essentially will give Williams the opportunity to re-claim what he probably feels was his to begin with.
“There’s definitely more to come,” Williams had said last year just prior to his own benching in favor of Crawley. “It’s a little easier in college because you get to hit a guy all the way down the field. In the NFL, you also have to change up techniques.
“I was pretty much a press, man-to-man type of corner in college, but now I’m trying to work on my scoop step, getting a little ground and quick stabbing. In the NFL, it’s a little different. Receivers are different, so you have to bring out a little technique.”
Photo by Michael DeMocker, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
And that technique is what Williams will now have to display, as he steps into the role that the team had been counting on Crawley to resume this year, the role that he had filled at times himself in the place of former Saints CB Delvin Breaux at the end of 2016.
Williams will have to be ready to take over, because if there was ever a time for him to prove he’s ready to be the player that the Saints were expecting to get when they drafted him, that time is NOW — when the Saints play those despised and hated Dirty Birds in downtown Atlanta….
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