When he was selected early in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft, many figured Leonard Williams would be good, but didn’t know the type of impact he would have. There were also suggestions he would be redundant given the three starters the New York Jets featured along the defensive front.
In Year 1, Damon Harrison, Muhammad Wilkerson, and Sheldon Richardson couldn’t prevent Williams from playing, but his performance in 2016 is the reason he’s number 11 on the list. Williams was good as a rookie. He burst onto the scene in his second year with seven sacks and 11 tackles for loss.
Williams won’t confuse anyone with some of the better, more explosive athletes at his position, but for old-school football lovers he’s every bit as effective. First, he’s a smart football player. He knows how to find the ball. He has shown that when he does find the ball he can finish.
How he gets to the ball is equally impressive. Williams plays with great leverage. He has incredible power and is already one of the stronger players in the game. When rushing the passer Williams isn’t specifically quick or agile, but he bulldozes his way to the quarterback. That’s what we will focus on today: his hand usage and his power, in five plays.
This first sack comes against the Steelers. This play embodies Williams as a player.
Leverage. Inside hands. Power. Williams is able to play lower than the tackle. Once that happens with his strength, the tackle has no chance.
What I like about Williams is that he finishes. On this play against the Chiefs, he doesn’t play with his usual good pad level. He stands up, but the immovable object still keeps his eye on the prize and is able to get the ball carrier down.
Even if he is playing tall Williams is still sound. He doesn’t get “reached” by the center but still gets a chip on the guard so he cannot run freely to the second level. He fights down the line of scrimmage but doesn’t get upfield and run himself out of the play. Coaches preach for defensive linemen to stay “in their work zone” and get heel depth. All this allows Williams to make the play.
Back to his hand usage. Because Williams wins with his hands, he can play quicker than he actually is. That’s a compliment. He does this up and down the line of scrimmage. Here he is on the edge against the Cardinals.
On Williams’ second step he is already squaring up the tackle because he knows how he is going to beat him. On the fourth step there’s a club. On the fifth step there’s a rip through. Then the quarterback pays the price. The best pass rushers have a plan. Williams clearly had a plan here the way he set the tackle up. That’s a quick, effective move.
Speaking of effective: Offensive linemen, when facing a power player, will likely try to overcompensate and get a leg up. They fire out quicker than they usually do. They lean forward in their stance more than usual. They get their weight out in front. Williams has a strong “push-pull” move that he uses to counter his bull-rush.
Lined up over the right guard’s outside shoulder, he steps to contact and brushes the lineman back, then uses his leverage against him and chucks him forward. Most importantly, he finishes the play.
Williams is this high on the list because he has a plethora of moves. He’s not limited to just a bull-rush. He’s not simply a run-stuffing defender. He’s versatile. He can win in many ways against the run and the pass. He also wins quickly. There’s no cleanup duty. He’s relentless, playing through the whistle. Some defenders, if they don’t win right away, just give up. That’s not Williams.
Here’s the last play — it’s overwhelming. He beats the center off the snap. The center actually recovers, but because of Williams’ raw strength he just throws him to the ground and kills two birds with one stone for a tackle for loss.
Up and down the line he’s a terror. He has figured out how he can win. Williams is on his way to being a great player in this league.
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