GREEN BAY – Tramon Williams is back.
Oh, Williams had been on the field for the Green Bay Packers’ previous nine games, at his customary cornerback spot, after he missed the first game at any level – Pop Warner, high school, college, pro – on Sept. 18 at Carolina because of the right shoulder injury he’d suffered in the team’s season-opening win over New Orleans 10 days earlier.
After missing the Packers’ victory over the Panthers, Williams was on the field every week thereafter, but he had to eschew the more physical parts of the game – tackling, which he’s always been solid at doing, and playing bump-and-run coverage – because his shoulder simply wasn’t up to taking the abuse.
He’d looked more and more like himself in the games leading up to the Packers’ 27-15 Thanksgiving Day victory over the Detroit Lions at Ford Field – a physical, form tackle on Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson on Oct. 23, interceptions in each of the previous three games, including two against Tampa Bay on Nov. 20.
But it wasn’t until Thursday, when Williams matched up with arguably the best wide receiver in today’s NFL – the Lions’ Calvin Johnson – every time Johnson split out wide that it was clear Williams is back to being the shutdown, elite cornerback that he was last season.
Because there’s no way that notoriously careful defensive coordinator Dom Capers – a man who, while willing to go Blitzburgh on an opposing offense at any time, refuses to call things during games that he didn’t see and like in practice the week before – would have entrusted Williams with the most important defensive assignment in his game plan if he didn’t think Williams was up to the task.
“You guys have watched Tramon, and you know how well Tramon played for us down the stretch last year. I don’t think there was a corner who played any better, and we know when Tramon’s healthy and playing the way he’s capable of, we’ve got an awful lot of confidence in him,” said Capers, and given even-keeled personality, it qualified as gushing. “I thought he played extremely well. I know there’s a couple of plays he’d like to have back, especially that one where he almost intercepted it and would’ve walked into the end zone, but I thought he did a very nice job on one of the best receivers in the league.”
According to Capers, a different defensive player wears what he calls “the hat” every week, serving as the linchpin of the game plan. Against the Lions, it was Williams.
“Then you try to challenge that person, if he’s going to be one of the key factors in the game plan. And one thing about playing corner in this league is, you better be up to the challenge because week-in and week-out, you might get the hat put on you,” Capers said. “The way we play, if you’re going to be an aggressive defensive team, your corners are going to have challenges, and they’re going to have to cover.”
Now, Williams shut down Johnson alone. He estimated he had over-the-top help from a safety about 50 percent of the time. And whenever Johnson lined up in the slot, Charles Woodson matched up with him instead. Unofficially, Johnson’s only reception against Williams was a 5-yard reception in the third quarter, on the play before Woodson picked off Matthew Stafford’s third interception of the day.
Of course, had Williams not dropped the aforementioned would-be pick-six interception – one of two possible INTs Williams saw slip through his fingers – his performance would have been all the more impressive. Instead, his best play came just before halftime, when Stafford took a third-and-2 deep shot to Johnson in the end zone with 1 minute 13 seconds left in the half.
The Packers had just a 7-0 lead at the time, and as Johnson (63 catches, 1,023 yards, 12 touchdowns) has done many times, he went up for a deep 50/50 ball in the end zone. Only this time, Johnson didn’t come down with what would have been a 29-yard TD that would have tied the game. Instead, Williams broke it up, and on the next play, ultra-reliable veteran kicker Jason Hanson missed a 47-yard field goal.
“It just shows the confidence your coach has in you, so you don’t want to let guys down so you go out and give your best,” Williams said.
Asked if he thought Capers would have drawn up such a game plan back when he was playing through the pain in his shoulder, Williams smiled.
“I don’t know. Probably not,” he said, still smiling. “I don’t think they’d have asked me to do that, at that point. But I‘m feeling better now, obviously. They know that, and they put me in a position.”
While the Packers’ pass defense remains a concern – they still rank 31st, giving up 287.8 yards per game – a fully healthy Williams could certainly change that, even if the ranking doesn’t get much better during the final five weeks of the season.
"We don't expect anything else out of Tramon,” Woodson said. “Tramon has just turned a tremendous player for us.”
And now, he’s back to being that player.
“I always said that it was more mental than physical,” Williams explained. “Obviously the physical aspect was hurting, but mentally you knew it and you were just trying to get through the game without reinjuring that same shoulder. So I was able to get through that period.
“Now, I’m just thankful that my shoulder’s back to where it needs to be and I’m able to play like I want.”
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There are no games scheduled for today.