When NFL players try to explain the signs of growth and maturity in their game, they often use terms such as “clarity of vision,” “keen instincts” and “greater anticipation.” Many use the expression, “The game slowed down for me.”
“I just started understanding the game better,” he recalled. “I started recognizing how defenses were being played and what pass-rushers were trying to do before they did them. You get older, you mature more and you get a little smarter in the game — see everything better, play better. Every year you see progression.”
Coupling that newfound growth with a rare blend of athleticism and strength, Williams last fall anchored a line that paved the way for the league’s top rushing attack, the fourth-most prolific scoring attack and a record-setting campaign for rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III. The Redskins made a dramatic turnaround overall, going from 5-11 in 2011 to 10-6 and winning their first NFC East title since 1999.
Williams, who allowed just two sacks all season, earned Pro Bowl honors for the first time in his career. Like his teammates, he aims to prove last season’s success was no fluke. His goal: help the Redskins build on last season’s division title and make a deep playoff run.
“I just want to progress as a player and leader of the team and as a teammate,” Williams said. “All the accolades will come as well as I perform. It’ll take care of itself. I don’t have my mind set on any accolades. I just want to achieve something as a team.”
Griffin will receive much of the praise if the Redskins again contend for the division and experience postseason success, and running back Alfred Morris will draw acknowledgements as the trusty sidekick. But as Griffin returns to action eight months removed from right knee reconstruction, his success and ability to stay healthy will hinge largely on the play of his offensive line and — perhaps most importantly — Williams’s ability to protect the quarterback’s blind side.
Williams insists he doesn’t feel more pressure this season with Griffin coming off the injury. But he does understand the importance of his role, according to coaches and teammates who have watched Williams grow up over the last four years.
“He’s improved mentally and physically, and that’s what you’re hoping that rookies do,” Mike Shanahan said of his first draft pick (fourth overall) as Redskins coach in 2010. “They come in and learn to be pros. They become accountable. They understand it’s a profession. It’s just not a part-time job. It’s your full-time job. I think Trent has gotten better in all areas, and that’s one of the reasons why the team voted him as captain.”
Williams’s maturation process last season including showing an ability to play through pain. He battled knee, ankle and thigh injuries last season but never missed a game despite having trouble walking a number of days leading up to games.
For much of camp, Williams wore a club cast because of a wrist injury, but it didn’t enable him to play completely pain free, and as a result, he appeared in just two preseason games. Williams managed to play well with only the support of a brace rather than the club, and he insists his wrist injury — a strain of sorts he revealed has hampered him since 2011 — has gotten much better and that he’ll be able to play without limitation.
The Redskins also believe Williams will not miss a beat. Outside linebacker Brian Orakpo, himself a Pro Bowl player who goes against Williams every day in practice, said the tackle no longer has problems grabbing with that left hand and appears to be in midseason form.
“From seeing all the different rushers he has now in his career, his ability to adapt has gotten a lot better,” Orakpo said. “His power, he’s a lot stronger, I feel. And the way he moves, it’s hard for guys to get around him or go through him. He possesses a dual threat, and that’s why you don’t see a lot of guys beat him. I consider him one of the best in the league because all the dominant rushers he’s faced, he always seems to shut them down.”
Although confident in his abilities, Williams still sees room to grow even though his deficiencies aren’t evident to others. But mastering those tiny details will help him continue to improve.
“A lot of people, you just say, ‘All right, he got his block,’ and they move to the next person,” Williams said. “Me, I see how I did on the play, how I could’ve gotten beat on the play if he had did something different, and so it’s always chinks in the armor that I’m looking for. I feel like I still have a lot of room for improvement. ”