The first dress rehearsal of the 2014 season for the Baltimore Ravens offered several bright spots, particularly on defense.
In a collective effort to allow only three points, strong performances by Asa Jackson and C.J. Mosley, among others, capped off a positive first showing.
But one player stood above the rest in his 2014 debut: second-year nose tackle Brandon Williams.
A true two-gap nose tackle whose playing time was limited as a rookie, Williams’ role with the team this year became more clear on Thursday night against the San Francisco 49ers, as he worked with the starting defense, playing 20 snaps.
His disruption and athletic ability were on display, two things that were evident last season even given his small sample size.
Appearing to be primed for a full-time role on defense this season, Williams’ first outing of 2014 offered reassurance of the potential he has, as well as how good he already is.
Playing the role of either lining up directly over center or to the side, the biggest asset Williams can bring to the defense is his run-stopping ability in the middle.
This doesn’t come just from him making the play on the ball carrier, but also if his interior disruption is enough to redirect a run play.
During San Francisco’s opening drive, Williams’ run-stopping ability was the difference maker in stopping the 49ers on third down and holding them to just three points.
Off the snap, Williams is easily the lowest of the Ravens defenders, which gives him extreme leverage from the beginning of the play.
Williams translates that leverage into a near de-cleating of the lineman, throwing him back as the run play develops.
By the time the ball carrier gains possession, the play is already over.
Williams’ disruption allows him to find himself in the backfield before the running back even gets to the line, leaving the 335-pound defender with an easy tackle for loss.
Pure strength will only get a defensive lineman so far; where Williams separates himself from other stronger defenders is his leverage and consistent eyes on the backfield.
Baltimore’s run defense struggled late in games last season, but having a player like Williams on the field more to set the tone inside and be a consistent disruptor this year should help improve the effort against the run.
While Williams’ run-stopping ability can be top notch at times, in order to be a complete asset at nose tackle for the defense, his pass-rushing skills must also come into play.
His most notable play of the 2013 regular season showed just that, and while his run defense was the main highlight against the 49ers, he did provide more displays of his strengths while rushing the quarterback.
Take a simple quick-hitting pass play for example.
Quarterback Blaine Gabbert has a quick drop and makes it obvious throughout the play that he’s throwing a quick out route toward the sideline. On quick passing plays like these, interior disruption is often neutralized due to lack of time, but time wasn’t an issue for Williams in this case.
Off the snap, Williams gains good initial positioning on the center, pushing him back, but not enough to disrupt Gabbert yet.
As the play rapidly develops, Williams’ window to get to Gabbert closes, but that doesn’t stop him from attempting to make a difference.
Williams uses his brute force to send the center back into Gabbert, minimizing the quarterback’s area to throw.
His high effort is on display as well, as Williams also throws a hand up in an attempt to bat the pass down.
Overall, this isn’t some J.J. Watt type of player where he throws the lineman off the snap, gets in position and slams the pass down at the line. But disruption is just as productive in many cases, and this play shows Williams’ disruptive tendencies outside of the run game.
If his usage in the first preseason game was any indication of the team’s plans for him this season, expect him to be a starter and key defensive piece at nose tackle during his sophomore campaign.
The Ravens will be using a handful of inexperienced starting defenders this season, but Williams should be able to make the jump and take on a big role in year two.