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Brandon Williams Will Be Key To Ravens' Belief In Defensive Line

June 15, 2015

Playing football at a high level takes enthusiasm, emotion and passion. 

On May 29, Ravens nose tackle Brandon Williams harnessed all of those elements when he climbed to the karaoke stage at the Ravens Roosts Convention in Ocean City, Md., and sang Journey's 1981 hit "Don't Stop Believing" for a raucous crowd of approximately 2,000 purple-clad fans.

On the surface, it was simply a matter of the 26-year-old Williams displaying typical youthful enthusiasm in front of an audience that was in the mood to be entertained.

But if one reads between the lines, one could see those same fans would like Williams to display that same kind of adrenaline rush on the M&T Bank Stadium field this fall.

Ravens 2014: Brandon Williams (Week 7 vs. Falcons)
Photo Credit: Sabina Moran/PressBox

That's because it will be needed more than ever in the wake of perennial Pro Bowl teammate Haloti Ngata's departure for the Detroit Lions in a March 10 trade. The Ravens shipped 31-year-old Ngata and a seventh-round pick to Detroit for a fourth-round pick and a fifth-round pick.

"[The Ngata trade told] me I just have to step up -- we have to do more," said 6-foot-1, 335-pound Williams, the Ravens' 2013 third-round pick (94th overall). "I accept the challenge, willingly, to get out there and do everything I have to do to be my best player, be my best self. And that goes for everybody else on the defensive line. 

"We don't need anybody to be Haloti. We just need everybody to be their best selves, and we'll be fine."

Because of Ngata's regular-season-ending four-game suspension last season for testing positive for Adderall, Baltimore already has plenty of experience playing without him. The Ravens won three of four games down the stretch to nail down the franchise's 10th playoff berth in the last 15 years, tied for the league's fourth-most postseason appearances during that span.

The line helped the team post an NFL-record 19th straight season of allowing 4-or-fewer yards per rush, and stretched the team's current league-high streak of not allowing an individual 100-yard rusher in 26 games.

That streak was nearly broken when Houston running back Arian Foster (96 yards) and Cleveland running back Terrance West (94) almost topped the century mark against Baltimore last season. So, the Ravens have tried to keep that momentum going during the offseason.

"I think Brandon Williams is probably as good a nose tackle as there is in the league right now," general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "We've got some good, young talent, but we need to continue to add to it. You don't ever have too many good defensive linemen."

The Ravens have indeed shown their desire to turn their defensive line into a younger, deeper unit. Even though he is just entering his third year, Williams' experience is surpassed on the line only by ends DeAngelo Tyson (fourth season) and Chris Canty (12th).

The first move to get younger came when the Ravens elevated Williams into a starting role last year, and he ended up playing a career-high 16 games, with 14 of them as starts.

The Ravens have also re-signed other young players, such as tackle Casey Walker and ends Lawrence Guy and Steve Means; brought back tackle Christo Bilukidi; allowed Canty to return; drafted defensive tackle Carl Davis in the third round, and cut loose underachieving nose tackle Terrence Cody.

Also, Tyson and tackle Timmy Jernigan are returning, and injured ends Brent Urban and Kapron Lewis-Moore are slated to come back, making for a crowded training camp rotation along the defensive front.

Urban and Lewis-Moore's inclusion into the scheme could have the same effect as it did on Williams, who played a defensive line-high 524 snaps one season after getting on the field for seven games during his rookie year. 

In 2013, Williams played in a unit-low 8 percent of the snaps, but he showed the kind of first- to second-year progression usually desired of highly touted prospects.

"It worked for me to feel the play," Williams said. "But also, the year when I was not really playing that much definitely helped me the most, because I was around the plays a lot more, and I was focusing a lot more on just knowing the plays. 

"Then, once my second year came, and I had that starting role, I felt a lot more comfortable in how I play, what calls were going to be made. And I knew more of not what kind of play it was, but more of what can they do to me in this play. So, I was not thinking about what should I do, but what they can do to me."

The unique part of Williams' 2014 season was that opponents didn't have much of an opportunity to do anything to him.

There were plenty of occasions last season when the Ravens, in an effort to get as many different defensive backs and pass rushers on the field as possible, didn't even need Williams to cross the white line. 

Williams' snap count -- the third-highest among AFC North defensive linemen, trailing only Cincinnati's Geno Atkins and Domata Peko -- took up 50.6 percent of the team's total number of defensive plays (1,034), keeping his young, athletic frame fresh throughout the season.

Williams has missed three career games due to a toe injury, so his relatively good health should keep him in the front of the team's plans in a 2015 campaign that will see it face many bruising-yet-versatile running backs, such as Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell, Kansas City's Jamaal Charles, Cincinnati's Giovani Bernard and Seattle's Marshawn Lynch.

One thing that has set Williams apart is his quick feet, a trait that made Ngata one of the best at his trade since his 2006 introduction to the league. During the offseason, Williams made sure he didn't lose his own lateral quickness, with Ngata's help.

If anything, Williams' enthusiasm and passion prompted strength and conditioning coach Bob Rogucki to slow him down.

"Sometimes, [a player] can overdo it and do too much," Rogucki said. "What we try to do, is if they're going to do extra work, we try to get them to do it on the day that they've trained that body part.

"[Let's] say we did an upper-body movement today and they want to come back and do more, we say, ‘All right, you can do limited to no more than maybe two more sets. But do not begin to do legs, because we have legs tomorrow.'"

In the quick-changing NFL world, tomorrow comes quickly, and Williams could figuratively use his legs to get leverage for a new contract after his rookie deal -- which contains a nominal cap hit of about $700,000 and $800,000 next season -- runs out after 2016. 

But Newsome and the front office, as usual, want to show just as much enthusiasm for getting ahead of the curve. 

"We've always felt the best time to get a fair deal for the player and for the organization is to attack it a year ahead," Newsome said. 

If the brass attacks a new contract the way Williams took to the microphone in Ocean City, fans won't have to stop believing in the Ravens' young defensive line, not to mention Williams' prominent role in it.

Joe Platania has been covering professional football since 1994.

Issue 210: June 2015