Rookie Sylvester Williams had a unique journey to the pros, and struggled early, but lately has been showing exactly why Denver made him their first choice in the 2013 Draft. No one seemed to imagine a scenario where Williams would still be on the board when Denver chose, but an early run on offensive linemen left him to the Broncos, who gratefully snapped him up at #28.
That has turned out to be the right choice at the right time. Defensive line leader Kevin Vickerson suffered a season-ending hip injury in the Week 12 loss to the Patriots, and Williams started to see more time on the field.
He’s made the most of it, with a solid performance during the last quarter of the season. What Williams has done of late is to show that he understands the pro game and that he can play well at this level.
While Williams grew tall at a young age, that growth halted once he reached 6’2”. However, he ballooned from about 225 pounds to nearly 370 during his college career, before accepting some coaching and dietary advice and settling around his current listed weight of 313 lb. That leaves him at a good height/weight combination for both the undertackle or nose tackle positions, which is a great benefit in the Broncos’ hybrid defensive approach.
Like nearly all young defensive tackles, Williams struggled for a while to get used to the speed and power of the NFL game. But over the past three weeks, according to PFF, Williams racked up two sacks, seven hurries, nine tackles, an assist, and seven stops, for a cumulative grade of plus-3.0.
Officially, he had 12 tackles (three for loss), two sacks, two QB hits, and one fumble recovery during that stretch.
His biggest area of weakness coming into the pros was his lack of proper hand technique, needed to dominate the centerline of an offensive lineman. He’s shown that he’s picking those skills up fairly quickly. He’s also been showing that he understands the leverage advantage provided by his low center of gravity, excellent functional strength, quick feet upfield and laterally. The lower pad-level player nearly always wins. The same goes for the first player off the line at the snap. Sly’s been doing all three effectively.
Another of his advantages, as Sport Science showed, is that he can reach full speed from a stationary start in only 2.095 seconds, so he’s moving at full tilt when he reaches the QB. He also reacts to the movement of the ball at the start of the play in 0.29 seconds - which is a full 0.18 seconds faster than the average player tested by Sport Science achieved.
As he gets his hand technique down and improves his leverage, Sly can utilize both his speed and technique to present a mismatch for most offensive linemen. Couple that with the excellent lateral movement skills that I’ve commented on in the past, and you’re looking at a player who is showing that he was a bargain at #28.
Let’s see how Williams uses those gifts to his advantage during a play from the Week 16 win at Houston. With 12:55 remaining in the second quarter, Houston faces a 2nd-and-9 from the Denver 49-yard line.
Williams (92) is lined up shaded to the outside: in front of the outside numeral of his assignment, Texans left guard Ben Jones (60). Sly’s body is turned so that he’s also attacking Jones from the outside, at a slight angle, so Jones may expect an outside attack. Denver also has Terrance Knighton (94) and the newly acquired Jeremy Mincey (57) as its down linemen, with Shaun Phillips (90) and Nate Irving (56, who drops off into space) on the edges.
At the snap, Williams attacks Jones’s outside numeral, as if he’s going to try and take an outside route to Matt Schaub. Sylvester never hesitates in his technique - he feints a full attack toward Jones’s left (outside) numeral, then spins lower and inside in one quick, silky move, creating a free path to Schaub.
As TJ noted in his Gut Reaction, that’s more of the kind of thing you would expect from a linebacker than from a defensive tackle. It’s the type of athleticism that had me excited about Williams on draft day.
You’ll also want to notice below that he’s stepping in with his outside/right foot. He keeps his feet moving, stepping in with short, powerful steps - first right, then left, and right again at the perfect depth to set up the fake.
Williams barely touches Jones on the left arm/shoulder area - he sells his fake to that side but then spins inward without pausing. His spin move uses the centrifugal force that comes from snapping his right elbow around closely to his body. That gets him across Jones’s face and gets his arm and helmet inside of Jones, all in a single move.
Once a tackle has that kind of position on his opponent, with both his right arm and his helmet inside the guard’s position, it’s all over but the tackling.
Jeremy Mincey is initially double-teamed on the play, suggesting that the Texans aren’t entirely sure how to handle him. He arrives right behind Williams.
Williams lands on Schaub like a Summit County, Colorado avalanche, then rolls free and tangles with another lineman. Mincey also gets through his own blockers as a clean-up man, and his attack keeps Schaub from escaping to his right. It’s the Broncos' first sack of the day, and part of Sylvester's five tackle (three for loss), one sack, one QB hit performance for the game.
Williams was frequently around the ball during his 32 defensive snaps that game, regardless of whether he was among the players credited for the tackle.
When you take on an interior defender in the draft, you’re hoping to see progress by the end of the first season, and an improvement in his physical condition and added knowledge during his second, with them coming to fruition in the third year.
Right now, Williams is solidly on schedule. This was the second of his two best games, with Sly having totaled five tackles and a sack against the Chargers the week prior.
There’s no question that the Broncos defense has been decimated by injuries this year. Being without Von Miller for much of the season has presented its own challenges; the losses of Champ Bailey, Rahim Moore, Kevin Vickerson, and Derek Wolfe are a tough batch of absences to overcome, and those are just the most significant injuries.
Wesley Woodyard’s neck injury has affected him considerably. There have been many more. Each time, someone else has to step up.
“Next man up” is much more than an aphorism - it’s a fact of life, if you want to make it to the Super Bowl. Seeing Williams bringing the kind of skilled effort that he's shown in recent weeks helps to soothe the worrisome toll that injuries have taken over the course of the season.
Finding that a rookie like Williams can provide the kind of mountain-sized performance that he brought to Reliant Stadium in Week 16 is the kind of thing that could change a key play in the upcoming playoffs.